A great number of schools across the United States have gone fully or partially remote this year in an attempt to avoid the spread of COVID-19. According to the National COVID-19 School Response Dashboard, as of November 22, 2020, about 13 million of about 28 million students in the United States were still attending classes at least partially in-person.
Positive COVID-19 cases among children remain low. However, with cases on the rise in many communities across the country, some districts are faced with a lack of the necessary adult staff required to keep in-person learning possible.
A national poll of parents, released by the National Parents Union, 38% of parents feel that their children are learning less than they would during a normal school year and nearly 40% believe their children aren’t getting enough time to interact with other students.
While schools are doing their best to ensure remote learning environments remain effective and accessible for students and staff, it is still not an ideal learning environment and school officials, teachers, parents, and students are looking forward to the time they can return to a more regular schedule.
Two districts in Illinois (a state where only about 29% of schools are providing in-person learning only) have managed to stay open all fall and have no plans to switch to remote learning.
Butler School District 53 and Gower School District 62 in Oak Brook, Illinois, are determined to remain open for in-person learning – safely – for the 2020-2021 school year. According to Dr. Paul O’Malley, Superintendent of Schools for District 53 and Dr. Victor Simon Superintendent of Schools for District 62, cite strong parental involvement, a determination to stay open, and preparing for worst-case scenario from the very beginning has led to their success.
Dr. O’Malley and Dr. Simon partnered together from the beginning of the pandemic to create a process from top to bottom. They got ahead of the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and were proactive about putting the safety measures into place that they’d need to keep their schools open.
The districts spent the summer planning for a return to in-person learning. The plan addressed five main issues:
“We’ve been beating the drum on testing since July,” says Simon. “We really did try to get other districts to join us in an effort to bring on-site testing to their schools, but it seemed like the general response from was more of a ‘yeah, but’ instead of a ‘yeah, how.’ Concerns ranged from size of district to funding, but this is about getting started and moving forward to be part of the solution. Being able to identify and isolate COVID-19 infections quickly has helped us control any potential spread, reduce time on contact tracing, and prevents a dependency on getting results elsewhere.”
Both districts also locked down all water fountains, enhanced sanitation measures, and hired extra substitute teachers to step in, along with additional bus drivers and other staff whose sole focus is sanitizing surfaces throughout the day. Students are required to wear masks at all times and are socially distanced within classrooms and in common areas. District 53 piloted UV lighting throughout the school for sanitation and District 62 purchased standalone, commercial-grade air purifiers for each room and upgraded filters in the HVAC system.
“We built our plan for worst-case scenario,” says O’Malley. “We started off with the strictest elements of everything.”
They’ve had continued success throughout the fall, in spite of rising COVID-19 numbers in the state of Illinois due to consistent enforcement and cooperation from staff, parents, students, and the community. In fact, the school didn’t have its first positive case until right before Thanksgiving.
The districts also brought Integrated Solutions Consulting (ISC) in to help with logistics, facilitate discussions with teachers, parents, staff, and the community about the plan.
“ISC is helping us monitor progress and ensure that we have independent corroboration that we’re taking all necessary measures to keep our schools open. We also want to make sure that our employees have room to say what improvements they see room for,” says O’Malley.
Since August 2020, Team ISC has helped put the following safety measures into place.
“ISC has been fortunate to work with such open and progressive leadership on this initiative,” says George DeTella, Managing Director, Public Health, ISC. “Leadership is critical during these times, and decisive decision-making and continued enforcement of necessary mitigation standards have been key to success.”
Some students chose remote learning at the beginning of the year and the districts do have a plan should they need to implement an “adaptive pause” and switch to remote learning district-wide and have a succession plan in the event administrators and even the superintendent were to get ill or need to quarantine.
For other districts looking to implement similar measures, O’Malley recommends starting small. “Create a plan that is scalable and flexible. Compartmentalize the different elements and look for wins. You’re not going to be able to do it all at once.”
Simon agrees. “If you focus on what you can’t yet do, you’ll get stuck.” He also encourages districts interested in learning more about the Districts’ safety measures and how they can implement them in their own district to visit the Return to School page, listen to an Illinois Association of School Administrators podcast featuring the districts’ plan, and watch this video.
Both superintendents are encouraged by the success Districts 53 and 62 have had and are hopeful for the rest of the school year. “We should all be taking advantage of the fact that schools can actually be one of the safest places because it’s a controlled environment.”
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