GLEN ELLYN – Glen Ellyn School District 41 on Thursday joined a growing number of suburban school districts in shifting to full remote learning to start the school year.
The district, which on July 20 had chosen a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning, changed gears amid staffing issues, rising coronavirus concerns in area metrics and an increase of students opting for the remote plan. The school board by a 6-1 vote approved the district's recommendation to pivot to fully e-learning classes.
"I'm sensitive to the frustration that everybody has," said board member Ted Estes, who voted for the revised plan. "I was real optimistic that we could hold that whole house of cards together to get that hybrid model going, and I hope we can keep our eyes on that and get to it. But we have to deal with the realities of a changing situation."
District officials cited staff survey data received last week that shows that 72 percent do not believe that in-person learning is safe and request full remote learning.
Assistant Superintendent Marci Conlin said that 65 staff members have requested accommodations and leaves of absence, a number that changes daily. A majority of a department at Hadley Junior High School have requested accommodations or leave, which would create a significant challenge for staff to return to the in-person model and further impact the stability of the hybrid model.
District officials reported that staff accommodation requests have doubled over the last two weeks, and only 10 substitutes the district is trying to recruit have committed to go through the required additional training.
"Based on current requests for accommodations, we cannot staff our in-person instruction without hiring long-term substitutes," Conlin said. "This would significantly diminish our substitute pool and also mean that we would be staffing our model with brand new, minimally or inexperienced staff."
The district also reported that multiple staff members are under quarantine, impacting their ability to start the school year.
The district cited 15 other districts in DuPage County that have changed to a remote plan, with one in a delayed start, including Glenbard Township High School District 87.
"The hybrid model at this point seems unfeasible and unsustainable," board member Julie Hill said. "If we want our best people or our best teachers in the classroom or virtual classroom this seems like the only way to do it. I trust the administration has looked around every corner and under every rock."
District officials have monitored COVID-19 metrics, and cited Thursday that DuPage County in one week reported that virus cases have gone from 51 to 73 cases per 100,000 people, triggering a warning from the Illinois Department of Public Health based on one metric.
Assistant Superintendent Katie McCluskey said that the district was hovering around 20 percent of students who wanted full remote. Additionally, the district has heard from several families who have chosen to hold off on making their decision, but have stated that as the school year draws closer they think they will be changing their preference from in-person to full remote.
"In its simplest terms, as the full-remote model grows, it creates a staffing need that we are unable to fill," McCluskey said.
In the fully remote model, all students will attend school remotely, following a standard school schedule. Students will be assigned a district teacher, and daily instruction will take place as synchronous live instruction with teachers working with students in multiple forms.
The daily instruction will total five clock hours, attendance will be taken daily for each subject and grades will be issued. District officials have stressed that remote learning will not look like the e-learning from the spring.
"We understand that a full remote learning plan is going to be a challenge for many families who were planning for the blended AM/PM model," Superintendent Melissa Kaczowski said in a message on the district website. "These are unique and challenging times for all and each family/staff member has a different set of circumstances. We do hope to transition to the blended model when it is safe and logistically possible to do so."
A number of teachers and parents spoke at Thursday's board meeting, both for and against remote learning.
Tami Allen, a teacher at Churchill Elementary School, said that it was her hope that the district could sustain a healthy return to school.
"Although a return would be different than previous years, I would much rather prefer to see my students from behind masks than through computer screens," Allen said.
Jessica Ingoglia was one of the parents who spoke to the frustrations of the district changing course.
"You're letting the teachers' union dictate our path forward," Ingoglia said. "You need to pick a lane and you can't do all of this at the mercy of our children and their education, and their mental and physical health."
Hadley Junior High School teacher Brett Cooper, though, said he was speaking on behalf of 92 other teachers when he called on the board to "not ask teachers to be a potential vector of disease and health."
"If in a classroom, we teachers are masked and constrained by social distancing and regimented protocols, our impact will be minimal," Cooper said. "If at home we are teaching remotely, at least our students can be comfortable and safe as the fully see our faces and hear our voices."
The district serves about 3,600 children from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade in four elementary schools and a junior high, with students from parts of Glen Ellyn, Glendale Heights, Lombard, Carol Stream and Wheaton.