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CHAMPAIGN — For a few weeks last fall, Champaign Superintendent Susan Zola finally had a chance to walk into schools and hear the sound of students talking and teachers instructing while physically in front of students, not looking at them through a computer screen.

“The teachers were so excited to be back, the students were so excited to be back,” Zola said. “I just think people very much appreciated what schools offer, as what we’ve always done. When you’ve lost that opportunity to actually come to the school and meet with your teacher, I think it just really brought home the importance of educators in our community.”

With coronavirus transmission rates in the county rising, the district returned to remote learning after just three weeks. But starting Jan. 20, it’s ready to try in-person learning again, with around half of students set to return.

Urbana will do the same on Jan. 19.

The districts have made do with remote learning, with Urbana never returning to in-person instruction during the first semester. Attendance was fairly similar to a normal year for both districts. Champaign’s 91 percent attendance rate is just below its 93 percent rate from last year, and Urbana High School maintained a 92 percent attendance rate, according to the districts.

But physically returning to a school building is far different. While learning remotely, students can log off with one click of the mouse, and they may or may not be counted in attendance. In person, that’s far different.

In Urbana’s case, those attendance numbers also account for students who can’t log on during their class’s scheduled time but finish work later.

“We have to look at family situations,” Urbana Assistant Superintendent for Student Learning Kimberly Norton said. “For instance, if the child is in day care and isn’t able to get on at that synchronous time, we work with families and balance the asynchronous work with that can constitute attendance for a school day.”

When they return, both districts will have some sort of virus testing. In Champaign, on-site PCR tests are available for symptomatic students. Urbana was able to participate in a pilot of Abbott Lab’s BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card tests, which return results in 15 minutes and can be used as screener tests and for symptomatic students.

Champaign passed on the chance to pilot the Abbott tests to allow nearby districts without access to Carle’s PCR testing to have some sort of testing, Zola said, adding that the district is still in talks with the University of Illinois about its rapid saliva test. Zola said that school nurses and staff like psychologists and therapists have received their first round of vaccinations.

Both districts will open up their elementary school buildings to all students who want to come to school, with the caveat that Urbana will cap its class sizes if too many students request to return in person. Thus far, that isn’t an issue.

Urbana will run its elementary school classes synchronously online and in person. After discussing several options, Champaign schools will have in-person and remote students taught separately. Half of the five-hour day will be synchronous learning and half will be remote, asynchronous learning for both districts.

At the middle and high school level, Urbana will open up the school for students who are most in need and selected by teachers and administrators. Students will meet with their teachers for extra support. In Champaign, certain classes and study groups will meet in person on certain days.

“We have some students who are doing very well with remote,” Norton said. “Maybe they’re even doing better now with this format, when they have a smaller time of instruction and during the asynchronous, kind of work around their own time, so some students are doing very well with that. But we do have a population of students that are doing very well with that.

“But we see that we do have a population of our students that are still struggling, and we also know that our youngest students, being behind a computer for a long period of time is not ideal. And so we just want to provide more interaction.”

For Zola, conversations with Champaign-Urbana Public Health District Administrator Julie Pryde and observations of schools across the area make her comfortable that, with strong mitigations, a return to school will be safe.

“I think (Pryde) has acknowledged that protocols are very strong in school settings,” she said. “We’ve seen that with schools across Champaign County, where schools have been open and students and staff adhere to those same guidelines. I think we’re all hopeful in the next several weeks with vaccinations on the horizon and for our educators ... that’ll be just another step to returning to school.”

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