Full in-person learning by Biden's 100th day? School leaders call it a lofty goal

Getting students back into schools for full-time instruction is an ambitious goal school administrators have been struggling with since the start of the pandemic.

Several suburban superintendents weighed in this week on President Joe Biden's pledge to reopen a majority of K-8 schools for in-person learning five days a week by the end of his first 100 days in office, which is April 30. They say that while it's a good idea in theory, there are practical and logistical challenges.

Among the hurdles are parents' hesitancy with sending children to school amid a pandemic, space constraints, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines requiring 6-foot social distancing in classrooms and monitoring of transmission rates.

"If we were to adhere to all the guidelines, could we offer five-day, in-person instruction for every student? The answer is, no. We don't have the space," said Fred Heid, superintendent of Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300. "The president and his team are very well-intended, but the reality of what they are trying to accomplish and what it actually means in terms of the logistics, it's almost impossible."

Roughly 70% of District 300 families have opted for in-person instruction for the second semester. Students in prekindergarten through fifth grade now attend school in person four days a week, while students in sixth through 12th grades attend two days in person and three days remotely.

Starting March 1, middle and high school students will be split into two groups rotating between attending three days in person one week and two days in person the following week. Elementary students will begin attending five days a week beginning March 22.

"Physical space limitations become problematic in classrooms but also lunch areas," Heid said. "We already use gyms and multipurpose rooms to create that safe space. We established a cap of 20 students per classroom so we can maintain social distancing. Even if I had empty classrooms, we don't have the staff. There's not enough teachers. ... And therein lies the problem. That's where the CDC and others fall short in their understanding of the actual logistics."

Of 849 school districts statewide, only 30% allow full in-person instruction, while 47% offer blended learning and 22% are in full remote mode. A majority of suburban schools are split between hybrid and remote learning options, often switching between the two based on spikes in COVID-19 rates.

While social distancing and space are the primary concerns, parents' unwillingness to send their kids to school while the virus is raging ultimately is the deciding factor for many districts.

"The majority of our parents have opted to keep their children home," said Colleen Pacatte, superintendent of Gurnee Elementary District 56, where less than 40% of families have chosen the hybrid option. "It's an individual preference."

District kindergartners through fifth-graders learn in person five hours every day one week and remotely the following week, and middle schoolers spend a half day every day in school. Classrooms in some schools can accommodate only 12 to 14 students, Pacatte said.

Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 on Wednesday began offering in-person learning five days a week to the 52% of students whose parents preferred it in a recent survey. The other 48% have elected to learn remotely.

District spokeswoman Terri McHugh said in-person learning isn't feasible for the entire student body due to space limitations.

Other challenges include staff members having medical complications that require them to work from home, and employees having to temporarily quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure or just taking normal sick days.

Changing CDC guidelines for schools, such as required monitoring of community transmission rates, also make it difficult for all students to return to a five-day, in-person schedule.

Elmhurst Unit District 205 has begun moving elementary students from a hybrid model to fully in-person classes, Superintendent David Moyer said.

The youngest learners returned to classrooms this week. Second-graders are slated to follow Monday, and third- through fifth-graders will make the move the week of March 1. An online-only option also is available.

Starting March 15, high schoolers are expected to attend classes in person four days a week.

Expanding in-person learning opportunities for middle schoolers is more problematic due to the size and number of classrooms, among other logistical concerns, Moyer said. Though one school could accommodate students returning five days a week, the other two would need to remain in a hybrid model until district officials and local medical experts determine whether a full in-person schedule is feasible.

Moyer said the only way to "get as many kids back in school as often as possible" is to reduce the recommended 6-foot distancing guidelines to 3 feet. "When you do that, you're going to have more quarantines. That's just something people have to accept," he said.

• Daily Herald staff writers Eric Peterson and Lauren Rohr contributed to this report.

First-grade student Zackary Ahlstrom, front, works on a computer exercise in class last month at Woods Creek Elementary School in Crystal Lake. Suburban school leaders say getting most students into schools for in-person instruction is too lofty a goal this school year. Matthew Apgar/Shaw Media
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