Wheaton Warrenville District 200 delaying first day of school
Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 is joining other area school systems in pushing back the start of the academic year as educators face daunting challenges reopening classrooms during the coronavirus pandemic.
While Naperville schools already have moved the first day into September, District 200 has delayed the start date by a week to Aug. 25.
In preparation of student attendance, the district is working through a complicated puzzle. The reopening details evolve on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. Putting health safeguards in place creates a domino effect on classroom size, daily schedules, staffing, busing and the district's budget.
The school board tentatively has allocated $1 million in contingency funds to support efforts to reopen the district's 20 buildings.
"We're going to need every bit of that contingency as we work through it," Superintendent Jeff Schuler said.
Postponing the first day of school will give administrators more time to finalize planning, Schuler told the board Wednesday night.
But at least one school board member is expressing concern with the "bigger picture" of rising COVID-19 infections and surrounding school districts reversing course and moving to a fully virtual curriculum.
State health officials announced 1,772 new virus cases on Thursday -- the largest tally recorded in a single day since May 24.
"I think we have a great program here, but I prefer to see this happen when the numbers go down," board member Jim Mathieson said. "And truthfully I would like to see some other school districts other than us be the leader in this."
The district plans to reopen with elementary and prekindergarten students receiving full-time, in-person instruction while middle and high school students will follow a hybrid schedule.
Many families are choosing to enroll their children in an online option. So far, nearly 2,200 students will learn virtually from home, new registration data shows.
Almost 80% of families that have registered for the school year have indicated an interest in in-school learning.
Schuler remains confident in the district's reopening plan, noting he's in talks twice a week with other superintendents and the county health department.
"It's entirely possible that data on a regional level, data on a state level, could move us at some point back into that e-learning path, but we're ready," Schuler said. "The fact that we have the virtual academy, and we've got a format mapped out I think would allow us to transition into that fairly easily."
The district has started the process of staffing the virtual academy with teachers who have submitted physician's notes restricting them from in-person learning. A memo of understanding with the teachers union also has extended the retirement window to Aug. 7.
Smaller class sizes will accommodate physical distancing, with desks spaced 6 feet apart. The average class will have 15 to 17 students in elementary schools. Adding more class sections means needing more staff.
Complicating hiring matters is a national shortage of substitute teachers who could fill in when a teacher is sick or needs to go into quarantine.
To help recruit substitutes, the board has agreed to increase the district's daily pay rate for "permanent guest" teachers from $90 to $115.
The district also will increase daily wages for guest nurses from $115 to $140 as each school building will operate two different health office spaces. One will address basic first aid and other traditional medical concerns. A separate assessment room will handle students or teachers presenting COVID-19 symptoms
All classrooms will have wall-mounted hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies. Mechanical systems, now retrofitted with upgraded filters, will bring in more outside air in an effort to reduce transmission of the virus. The district also is providing face coverings for all students and employees.
"We have ordered and we will have on hand an ample supply of any of the personal protective equipment that we will need based on staff and role," Schuler said.
The district continues to field parent questions about its response to positive cases.
The Illinois Department of Public Health has provided draft guidance for determining when students or teachers could return to school if they've tested positive for the virus. They could only come back after meeting all three of the following thresholds: at least 10 days have passed since their symptoms first appeared; at least 24 hours have passed with no fever and without fever-reducing medications; and other symptoms such as cough or shortness of breath have improved.