Unit 4 board Sitch

Champaign Federation of Teachers Vice President Mike Sitch speaks to the school board at a recent meeting about a proposed plan for partial in-person learning during the second quarter.

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URBANA — The notes she leaves on doors are heartbreaking to Urbana High School social worker Alicia Trezise.

“Hey, we’re really looking for you,” the notes read, along with her contact information. “I hope you’re OK.”

A small subset of kids Trezise serves simply aren’t connecting with remote learning. They’re not attending class, and she isn’t able to find them to make sure they’re getting the social services they need.

“There is a small section (of students) — it’s not many, but it’s not zero — that we’re just not hearing from,” said Trezise, who is president of the Urbana teachers union. “It breaks your heart. I’m worried about them.”

Over the last two weeks, District 116 in Urbana and Unit 4 in Champaign have discussed at length how to best serve those marginalized students. And they’re approaching the second quarter, which begins next week, in very different ways.

Urbana Superintendent Jennifer Ivory-Tatum announced that the district would halt plans to move to a hybrid learning schedule for the second quarter and stay remote. The amount of staff available simply wasn’t sufficient for a return to in-person school, she said.

But for a very small amount of students who are not engaging, the district will provide some sort of in-person support.

For around 10 percent of middle and high school students, buildings will be open. They’ll participate in “Learning Labs,” which includes tutoring and one-on-one help in person.

Elementary students who aren’t connecting to remote learning will also be identified building by building, and kindergartners through second-graders will come into school for “individualized support with an adult.”

According to new Illinois State Board of Education guidelines, those adults don’t necessarily have to be certified teachers.

“While our original modified plan would have put us in line with the rest of the state, the rest of our county, the rest of the region here in central Illinois for those that are returning in-person,” Ivory-Tatum said at an Oct. 6 school board meeting, “this model will still allow us to serve our most marginalized students in some way.”

Three weeks ago, Champaign school board members were resolute in backing Superintendent Susan Zola’s plan to allow students to return in person. Zola, who had autonomy to make the decision, moved forward with a plan to allow elementary students whose families wanted them to return in person to do so for two-and-a-half hours a day.

That plan, though, was met with detractors who were worried that it was too much too soon, with not enough support for teachers. The district’s teachers union released a letter with a list of conditions for their members’ return to school, including assurances about testing, safety, child care and more.

Over the last two weeks, Zola and Champaign Federation of Teachers Co-Vice President Lisa Milkereit met with union stewards at each elementary school to talk about concerns with the plan.

Over the ensuing week, the district checked off some of those concerns. Zola met with representatives from Carle Foundation Hospital, who devised a way for school nurses to administer coronavirus tests on-site for symptomatic teachers and students.

They also agreed that on Mondays, all students would only meet virtually for two-and-a-half hours with their full class.

“Not all of the issues are resolved, and we still have some stuff we need to work out,” said Mike Sitch, co-vice president of the teachers union. “But the district’s been working with us to do that.”

One issue is limiting the amount of students seen each day by “specials” teachers, who teach classes such as music, art and physical education, and interacting with multiple classes every day.

The district will provide care centers for teachers who have children who are not in school, a prospect at which board member Gianina Baker bristled. That means students who attend school in Urbana but have a parent teaching in Champaign will have a place to go during the day so that teachers don’t have to take leaves of absence.

“I understand the concerns of that, for sure,” Sitch said. “You want to look like you’re providing everybody equal and equitable access to the buildings, but some of our teachers were in positions where, if they couldn’t find child care … they really only had the option of taking leave. I think the district knows, and most families want their teacher … I know for the small percentage of our teachers who are stuck without child care upon returning, it’s the make-or-break situation.”

As the second quarter approached, both school districts and their boards spoke about the need for equity and the need for the most vulnerable students to receive the in-person help they needed.

Unlike its initial plan devised for fall learning, though, Champaign’s new proposal is open to all students. According to a district survey of families, 48.3 percent of students at Carrie Busey Elementary want to return to in-person learning — the highest of any school the district — while at Stratton Academy of the Arts, only 27.7 percent want to return.

In 2019, 30.9 percent of Carrie Busey students were classified as low-income, the lowest in the district. At Stratton, 69 percent of students met the threshold.

Urbana, meanwhile, is only providing in-person services to those who need it most, including students with special needs and others who are disengaged. The district does plan on providing a hybrid option during the third quarter.

“I’m feeling very positive about the direction we’re going and the district’s willingness to take a slower approach and try some things before we brought everybody back for hybrid,” Trezise said. “I know that’s not what most districts are doing, but I have a great deal of respect that they’re willing to listen and try some things.”