Send the kids in August? Parents, schools grapple with reopening decisions

  • Merced Alfaro says though it's a big decision, she is sending her daughter Daniela, 17, a senior at Round Lake High School, to school this fall despite concerns over the coronavirus hitting suburban Latino communities hard.

    Merced Alfaro says though it's a big decision, she is sending her daughter Daniela, 17, a senior at Round Lake High School, to school this fall despite concerns over the coronavirus hitting suburban Latino communities hard. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Merced Alfaro plans to send her daughter Daniela, 17, a senior, to Round Lake High School this fall despite concerns over the coronavirus hitting suburban Latino communities hard.

    Merced Alfaro plans to send her daughter Daniela, 17, a senior, to Round Lake High School this fall despite concerns over the coronavirus hitting suburban Latino communities hard. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 7/12/2020 8:34 AM

After months of lockdowns, masks, social distancing and endless talk of COVID-19 and positivity rates, the time suburban parents have dreaded is nearly here -- the start of the school year.

For many, the thought of sending their children to school during an ongoing pandemic could be causing sleepless nights as they watch and wait while their school district grapples with the details of how best to reopen -- in-person classes, remote learning or a combination of both based on guidelines from state education and health authorities.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

And many suburban districts are leaving it up to those same parents to choose how their children will learn.

"It's a big decision for all," said Merced Alfaro, whose youngest daughter, Daniela, 17, will start her senior year at Round Lake High School. "I worry for all the students, not just for my daughter."

Despite concerns over COVID-19 hitting suburban Latino communities hardest, Alfaro is confident students will learn to be safe if adults set a good example.

"Right now, many parents are ready to start, but it's a big responsibility for us, the community and the district, too," she said. "We need to learn how to live with the virus."

Illinois State Board of Education guidelines allow schools to reopen three ways -- entirely in person, fully remote or through a blended learning model.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Many school districts are working on plans using these parameters. Several districts surveyed parents and employees about the options.

Some districts, including Elgin Area School District U-46, Barrington Area Unit District 220, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, Round Lake Area Unit District 116 and Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54, are considering using that hybrid approach, offering families a choice between virtual learning and in-person classroom instruction with health and safety modifications such as increased sanitizing and required masks, face shields and social distancing.

One factor parents may have to consider is locking into a choice for a semester, trimester or the entire school year.

District 211 Superintendent Lisa Small said the school year would begin Aug. 13 under either the remote-learning or hybrid scenarios. Under the hybrid scenario, a parent may choose to have their child connect to the classroom from home everyday.

In U-46, most of the more than 3,000 employees and 13,000 families surveyed overwhelmingly supported a hybrid plan.

"Schools aren't just about students," U-46 Superintendent Tony Sanders said. "We can't serve kids without teachers, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, secretaries, nurses ... it doesn't happen without adults. There is no way to ensure student and staff safety and have in-person instruction every day for all students. At least not at the start of the school year."

At Palatine Township Elementary District 15, parents are being asked to decide by midnight Friday whether they want to opt-out of in-person instruction and have their children placed in a virtual group.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"This is not going to be a normal school year no matter what parents choose to do," district spokeswoman Morgan Delack said. "We will be really taking seriously the use of personal protective equipment and face coverings and making sure that our students are wearing them properly during the school day, because we know social distancing may not be an option for us. We have also purchased disposable masks for visitors and students who come to school without one."

Steve and Jen Klein of Palatine know it's risky sending their children to school under pandemic conditions but are choosing to do so anyway. Their 8-year-old son Tyler will attend second grade at Kimball Hill Elementary School in Rolling Meadows, and daughter Trista, 5, will start kindergarten at Virginia Lake Elementary School in Palatine.
Steve and Jen Klein of Palatine know it's risky sending their children to school under pandemic conditions but are choosing to do so anyway. Their 8-year-old son Tyler will attend second grade at Kimball Hill Elementary School in Rolling Meadows, and daughter Trista, 5, will start kindergarten at Virginia Lake Elementary School in Palatine. - Courtesy of Steve Klein

Parents of young children, such as Steve Klein of Palatine, recognize the risk of sending them to school under such conditions but are choosing to do so anyway.

"My biggest hesitations are the masks," said Klein, whose 8-year-old son, Tyler, will attend second grade at Kimball Hill Elementary School in Rolling Meadows and daughter, Trista, 5, will start kindergarten at Virginia Lake Elementary School in Palatine. "I am finding it hard to believe that 5-year-olds are going to be able to wear a mask for eight hours a day."

Despite that, Klein and his wife, Jen, want their children back in school where they will have a more structured learning environment. Klein works full time from home and Jen is a physical therapist. Neither is available nor equipped to supervise their children's virtual learning at home, he said.

"I'm not a teacher," Klein said. "I feel like they are more at risk of catching the virus in a school setting ... but realistically we want our lives to go back to as normal as possible. Quite frankly, we are willing to take the risk."

Others see it differently. Naperville Unit District 203 parent Erin Zimmer says that online learning was a nightmare for her and her kindergartner, even with great teachers who did screencasts, read-alouds, extension work for advanced learners and remediation for kids who needed help.

Still, Zimmer doesn't believe social distancing or masking regulations will work. She favors keeping students like hers home, unless they need to be in school for a hardship, such as disability or learning disorder or to learn English.

"The thought of trying to explain to my kids why their teacher or a classmate is seriously ill or died because they were exposed to the virus at school is heartbreaking for me to even contemplate," Zimmer said. "Speaking solely for my own household, I cannot put my children's teachers or their families in danger. ... I cannot impose such risk on anyone, and if I choose to send my kids to school, then I'll be doing just that."

Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 has four operating modes that could apply to next year's learning during Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois plan. Three of the plans are expected to be in use when school resumes, with the fourth -- a transition to e-learning at any or all levels -- available if made necessary by a rise in COVID-19 cases.

The modes include Plan A: In-person daily instruction for early childhood, elementary and transition students; Plan B: Hybrid learning on a rotating schedule with two cohorts alternating two or three days of in-person and virtual learning each week for middle and high school students; and Plan C: A "Virtual Academy" of complete e-learning for students of any age whose families do not feel comfortable sending them to physical school buildings.

Naperville Unit District 203 and Indian Prairie Unit District 204 in the Naperville and Aurora area are scheduled to release their return-to-school plans during school board meetings Monday night.

District 204 Superintendent Adrian Talley said a group of administrators has engaged teachers, principals and parents to formulate how the next school year will work. The group has talked with its busing company about ways to ensure all children from the same family are on the same bus.

The group also has considered how spaces, such as music rooms or speech tutoring rooms, could be used for classroom education and how many student desks truly can fit in each space, given 6-foot social distancing recommendations.

"The plan is etched in Jell-O right now, not marble," Talley said. "We have to create a plan that can respond to the changes that come our way."

0 Comments
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Get articles sent to your inbox.

Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.