CHAMPAIGN — The plan for a return to in-person instruction for elementary school students distributed to staff and families last week was simply the basis for a discussion, Champaign Superintendent Susan Zola said at Tuesday’s school board meeting, not a plan set in stone.
Under the plan, the elementary schools would give students the option of two-and-a-half hours of in-person instruction each day or the same amount of time online. Students would also receive two-and-a-half hours of independent work.
For some, despite having access to the appropriate resources, remote learning simply isn’t working, Zola said, and the proposed plan was a way to provide a model that might work better for those students.
“They asked to have that conversation,” Zola said. “Tonight, on their behalf, I will have that conversation.”
The board provided Zola the latitude to create a plan for a return to in-person learning, she pointed out, so it is not being asked to approve a plan.
Champaign Federation of Teachers President Mike Sitch said he was surprised when he got notification of the district’s plan last week under the understanding that a course had already been set, instead of it being the beginning of a discussion.
Under the plan, teachers would be required to provide three different types of learning — in-person, virtual, and independent — each day.
“That’s a tall order to make sustainable without something falling by the wayside,” Sitch said after giving a statement at the meeting. “There’s a lot of concern about whether or not doing something like this is sustainable. They’ve got a lot of concerns about their students needs; they’ve got a lot of concerns about safety. We’re not saying we don’t think we can come back in person. We’re just not sure if this is the best way forward is sustainable.”
Under the plan, high schools and middle schools will not provide in-person learning. The district cited logistical concerns with students’ schedules for that decision.
For the union, that imbalance for its members was an issue.
“Given the fact that our Pre-K-5 members are going to be tasked with two jobs — maybe three — and given that they will be burdened with decisions that their colleagues at the secondary level will not, like whether to take leave or not, and given that they will be asked to be part of the COVID experiment,” Sitch told to the board, “we, the union, will work collectively to create an equitable solution, determine next steps, and/or pursue appropriate compensation for our members.”
A survey conducted by the district showed that 50.8 percent of respondents desired some form of in-person learning.
That survey might not have told the entire story, though. Now that a plan has been proposed, PTA Council Treasurer Kristi McDuffie said parents are concerned that they may have to switch teachers. If the choice was between in-person learning with a different teacher and remote learning with the same one, some parents may have chosen the latter, McDuffie said.
“I think what priorities (matter) to families is not being measured in the district survey,” McDuffie said. “There has been a lot of anxiety out there about teacher changes, given that we are in a situation where there’s already so much disruption in our learning environments and the idea of that kind of disruption after six weeks. More of a disruption is worrisome.”
Zola discussed using the saliva-based coronavirus test developed by University of Illinois, but she said testing all students and staff once per week for 27 weeks would cost the district $5,562,000 for the year.
Families are disappointed, Zola said, that middle and high schools won’t have an in-person option. The fact that those schools work on a semester schedule rather than by quarter, she said, made it extremely difficult to provide that option. The district will provide student-support centers, she said, for students who desperately need in-person support.
In the back-and-forth debate, school board member Bruce Brown made sure to remind all involved about the students being left behind.
“I just want to put a reminder out there that we have an entire demographic who has zero engagement with virtual learning,” Brown said. “That demographic with zero engagement would benefit from in-person learning, even if it is just two-and-a-half hours a day. My comment for all parties involved is, have the conversations, hammer out the protocols, communicate, so we can get this done for our most marginalized students.”