Amid COVID-19 crisis, District 303 to consider one-year plan for longer elementary day
St. Charles Unit District 303 administrators had grand plans to integrate more innovative learning techniques into a longer elementary school day next fall.
At the center of their vision was "Empower," a new elective designed to give students hands-on enrichment opportunities outside their core subjects. Additional fine arts and physical education classes also were to be woven into their schedules, now an extra 40 minutes per day.
But the coronavirus pandemic has shifted the district's goals as schools nationwide face uncertainty over how their educational structure and setting will look this fall.
Administrators are now proposing an interim plan for the 2020-21 school year that uses the Empower teachers to support remote learning, classroom learning and the transition between the two.
The past two months have been difficult for many students, affecting their academic, social-emotional and competency development, said Cindy Ruesch, director of staff, student and family services. Not all have the same level of support at home. Some are dealing with additional stressors related to shelter or food insecurity.
"We know it will be more important than ever to provide students with balanced curricula where (they) can engage in purposeful play, collaborate, problem solve and develop flexibility," she said.
If social distancing guidelines require a form of e-learning, the interim plan calls for having Empower teachers and learning resource center specialists help classroom teachers develop technology tools, design instruction and provide extended learning opportunities outside core subjects.
Once students return to the classroom, the same group of educators will spend about a trimester supporting the transition from a remote to an in-person setting. That includes personalizing learning experiences for students and helping fill any gaps identified through assessments.
Officials are considering purchasing a special software, i-Ready, to assist in gauging students' needs and developing instruction for kindergarten through eighth grade. The program, expected to cost $229,628, is up for a vote Tuesday.
When that transitional period ends, students would begin attending a modified Empower class one to two times a week for the remainder of the year. Administrators then recommend implementing their original plan for a longer school day in 2021-22.
"I really think this is a very appropriate way for us to adjust to what our kids are going to need," board member Rebecca McCabe said. "After losing this amount of face-to-face time with teachers, I think having this extra support is going to be great for catching kids up."
The district initially planned to hire 26 full-time employees to teach the additional elementary components -- art, music, physical education and Empower -- that would be implemented into the new seven-hour school day, officials said in a presentation last week. The 40-minute extension was negotiated as part of a teachers contract last year.
The interim plan assigns more sections to existing staff members and reduces the number of new positions to 18.5, saving the district about $525,000, administrators said. An additional $210,000 will be saved through title funds.
But with each new hire costing about $70,000 in salary and benefits, the district would still spend "well over $1 million" on a plan based on assumptions, board member Michael Bryant said.
He suggested holding off on implementing the longer school day, saying there are too many uncertainties.
"It's not the way I think we should be spending this money at this time," Bryant said.
"I don't think making decisions for an extended day is in the best interest of the taxpayers, and, quite frankly, we don't know if it's in the best interest of the students."