How Wheaton Warrenville District 200 plans to reopen schools
As the start of a new school year looms, Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 is working out the complexities of reopening plans that will let parents choose how their children will learn in the midst of a pandemic.
The Illinois State Board of Education has issued broad guidance for bringing students back to school, but individual districts must navigate an assortment of logistical challenges extending into nearly every aspect of their operations.
Facing a time crunch, educators are preparing for smaller class sizes to accommodate physical distancing measures. As a result, District 200 has built a contingency into its tentative budget to allow for additional hiring and stepped up recruitment of substitute teachers amid a national shortage.
The staffing needs also will come into focus with the results of a registration process that asks parents if they intend to have their children receive in-person instruction or opt for a "virtual academy" to attend school remotely.
For students returning to school buildings, the district is developing a screening process that will require parents to self-report that their children are symptom-free prior to each school day or over a block of time. Students and staff will have to wear face coverings.
"There's not a choice around that," Superintendent Jeff Schuler said Monday of the mask requirement. "Each year, we build routines in schools that we have to teach kids, and this will be no different.
"So will it be a challenge? Potentially yes, but can we do it? I think if we approach it with kids in the right way, I believe they will learn to adhere to those expectations."
A K-12 system, the district plans to implement three of four reopening plans when the school year starts the week of Aug. 17.
Those operating modes include resuming in-person, daily instruction for early childhood programs, elementary schools and a transition center for students with special needs. Students and staff would have regular access to interventions. Lunch would take place in groups of less than 50 and very likely in classrooms at the elementary level.
"Our youngest learners benefit most from being in-person with our teachers," Assistant Superintendent Chris Silagi said. "We know that school is going to look different, but we believe that in-person instruction, face-to-face instruction, that there is no replacement for that for our youngest learners."
At the middle and high school levels, the district would offer a hybrid model on a rotating schedule, dividing the student population at each school into two groups alternating two or three days of in-person and virtual learning each week. Students will have a district-issued device they will bring to and from schools.
"We are prioritizing siblings attending on the same day," Assistant Superintendent Melissa Murphy said.
"Plan C" allows for complete e-learning for students of any age whose families do not feel comfortable sending them to school buildings.
The district would pivot to a fourth plan -- a transition to e-learning at any or all levels -- if made necessary by a rise in COVID-19 cases.
"If we need to shift from one modality or one plan to another, we need to make sure that the system is set up and ready to make that adjustment," Schuler said.
To help families make their decisions, the district will hold a reopening Q&A July 20 on Zoom.
"This is the plan as of right now, and the reality is that there are definitely some aspects of it that could change," Schuler said.
If and when there are confirmed cases of COVID-19, the district will work with the county health department on contact tracing and determining how many students or staff would need to quarantine from school.
Reducing capacity in classrooms also will make contact tracing more manageable, Schuler said.
And if teachers are placed under quarantine, will those employees have to use sick days?
"The answer to that in short is that there's an allotted amount of leave that was made available to folks that will govern part of this," Schuler said. "And then there may be a point where a teacher does need to dip into their own sick leave accumulations as well."
To enhance cleaning protocols, custodial staff will disinfect high-touch areas through the day. Student restroom use also will have to be "closely supervised" to avoid gatherings, according to a school board presentation on the reopening plans.
The district's facility operations staff will have all ventilation systems running as of Aug. 3.
"From a preventive standpoint, we've really looked at how do you optimize those to bring in as much outside air as possible," Schuler said. "We've looked at filtration on all of our systems to make sure we're up and operational."