One-year plan addresses COVID-19 challenges in District 303 elementary schools
Amid uncertainty over the coronavirus pandemic, St. Charles Unit District 303 is moving forward with a one-year plan to address the unique challenges facing elementary students and teachers next academic year.
The state has yet to release directives on how school will resume in the fall after suspending in-person learning for the past two months. Whether the format includes e-learning, classroom learning or a combination of the two, District 303 has designated a group of educators to take on the temporary role of helping students and classroom teachers navigate the unprecedented circumstances.
Approved by the school board in a 5-2 vote this week, the interim plan is derived from an original proposal to hire additional employees and weave more electives -- including a new special called "Empower" -- into a longer elementary school day. The 40-minute extension was negotiated as part of a teachers contract last year, allowing more time for innovative learning opportunities outside core subjects.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the district will now scale back on its hiring plan but still use Empower teachers to help develop engaging online instruction, assess student needs, fill learning gaps and ease the transition between remote and classroom environments.
The one-year plan received support from St. Charles Education Association leaders, who believe it "honors the commitments" of the contract and allows the district to implement its full-scale plan for a seven-hour elementary day in 2021-22, President Joe Blomquist said.
Board members Heidi Fairgrieve and Michael Bryant opposed the measure, citing concerns over costs and implementation during a global health crisis.
"To be clear, I'm definitely in support of having an extended day for elementary. I get concerned as it relates to the timing," Fairgrieve said. "I think there's a big unknown as to what additional expense we're going to incur to be able to get our students back in school."
Bryant initially requested postponing a vote to better understand the legal ramifications of pushing off the extended day for another year. Administrators warned the move would likely violate aspects of the district's agreement with the education association.
More hands-on engagement opportunities and longer days were identified by the board as high priorities, board President Carolyn Waibel said. The one-year plan achieves those goals while also addressing the pandemic's unique circumstances.
"I wish we had a crystal ball two years ago and (had) known that COVID was going to hit," she said. "That being said, I think it's important to keep our commitment to what we believe is important in learning."
The district plans to hire Empower teachers immediately so they can begin preparing for all possible scenarios, Superintendent Jason Pearson said. A special committee also will be created to develop an implementation process and consider other aspects of the revised plan, from transportation to instruction, he said.