Crystal Lake-based District 155 votes unanimously to start off school year remotely

Updated 8/5/2020 10:27 AM

The Crystal Lake-based District 155 school board voted unanimously Tuesday to start the school year with full remote learning through at least until Oct. 9, becoming the latest local school district to change its back-to-school plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 5,700-student district previously released plans July 24 for a hybrid learning model, in which students would have in-person instruction two to three days a week with at-home learning for the rest of the week. Under the original hybrid plan, families also would get the option of going full remote.


Now, all students will begin the school year Aug. 17 with full remote learning, while teachers will work from their respective buildings.

A rising positivity rate and growing number of cases in both McHenry and Lake counties were among the reasons given for the switch to remote learning, District 155 Superintendent Steve Olson said.

McHenry County has gone from 21 cases per 100,000 people in June to 75 cases per 100,000 people, as of last week, according to the IDPH's county level COVID-19 risk metrics. Any county with 50 or more cases per 100,000 people is showing warning signs of increased COVID-19 risk, according to the state's metrics.

Changes in guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education also led to instability in planning, Olson said.

"I would suggest that our commitment to flexibility has been highlighted throughout this process," Olson said after hearing from both public supporters of hybrid and remote models. "Being aware of the fluid nature of everything that continues to take place throughout not only the state but the county of McHenry and also (Restore Illinois Region 9) with Lake County."

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"When I think about being flexible, that time has presented itself. That time is now. I come to you with a saddened heart tonight because I do believe in our hybrid plan. I think it's well thought-out."

The district will re-evaluate its learning options and parents will receive a status update Sept. 30 on how education will be delivered for the second nine weeks of the first semester. Parents will receive another update Dec. 1 regarding the start of the second semester and any possible changes going forward.

On Mondays, students will operate on a nine-period schedule, starting at 9:45 a.m. and ending at 2:55 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, students will go to school remotely on a block schedule, with five classes lasting one hour, 15 minutes apiece. Block schedules will start at 8 a.m. and end at 2:50 p.m. There will also be a 15-minute break for students at noon.

A live support meeting for students will be available each Monday from 8:45 to 9:45 a.m., and teachers will plan and collaborate from 7 to 8:45 a.m. at the start of each week.


Remote learning will be more rigorous than it was in the spring, attendance will be taken daily and be mandatory, and students will be graded on assignments. Teachers will require live instruction for at least 30 minutes during their assigned class time during the block schedule.

Students will be required to attend all live events during assigned class time and be engaged. Students will be required to keep their cameras and audio on throughout a lesson or until the teacher releases the class.

Results of a district survey with families shared July 21 at a board meeting showed that 62.3% of families preferred a hybrid learning model, in which students attend in-person alternating days; 12.8% said they were not comfortable and would require remote learning to begin the school year; 9.4% said they preferred a normal, five-day per week schedule with in-person instruction; and 6.3% said they preferred remote learning with or without an existing medical condition or a doctor's note.

Almost 80% of families of the district's 5,200 families responded to the survey.

"I realize that we have 80% (of families) that want kids in school, and we need to find a way to make that happen as quickly as possible," Olson said.

District 155 board member Tom Vaclavek, who has a 16-year-old son at Cary-Grove, said he struggled with the choice between keeping students at home or sending them back to school.

"The hybrid plan protected parents that wanted the ability to decide what's best for them and their children and families," Vaclavek said. "I hope that it is a very short period of time we're looking at remote learning, so we can get kids back in school, so kids can be kids again and they can learn the way they need to learn.

"We're doing this to make sure that our teachers are safe, that our kids our safe and that our staff members and administrators are safe. We don't want somebody to be dead because of a decision we make."

During public comment, parents and teachers shared their concerns of forgoing hybrid learning.

"My kids are so depressed right now that they can't see their friends," said one parent speaking on behalf of an Individualized Educational Plan student at Cary-Grove.

Another parent of a Crystal Lake South student who identified himself as a paramedic questioned the data being used to determine whether or not students and teachers should be back in schools.

"The thought of school openings causing teachers and kids dying throughout the country is completely wrong," he said. "The data doesn't support it. It all comes from poor reporting done by our newspapers. All we hear are the total sicks and deaths."

A teacher in the district said she supported the hybrid learning model after a bad experience with remote learning in the spring.

"Students and families rely so much on services the building provides," she said. "Students learn better in an authentic school environment, and teachers reach students best when they are able to form in-person relationships with them rather than a digital platform."

Another parent of an incoming freshman and senior at Prairie Ridge pleaded with the district to go ahead with it proposed hybrid plan.

"If we don't let them do this, how are we going to let them be adults?," she argued. "If we teach them to stay home and hide behind a computer screen, we're teaching them to be afraid, don't try, and just give up."

Devin Hester, the president of the Crystal Lake High School 155 teacher union and an English teacher at Cary-Grove High School, said remote learning will offer advantages over the hybrid model.

"In addition to being safer, we also think the structure of it affords some quality educational opportunities that the hybrid model won't," Hester said. "It will be easier to monitor all of our students' progress when they're all in every class at the same time experiencing everything together. No one will have a lesser experience because they aren't in the building on a given day when their classmates are."

District 155 board member Dave Secrest said the board, ultimately, "may be wrong," but "tried to do what it felt was the best plan going forward."

"As Mr. Olson said, there's no right answer," Secrest said. "I think we all struggled. We would like to have our schools open, we would like to have kids back in school. We've tried to do what we believe to be in the best interest of the students, the best interest of teachers and staff, and the best interest of the community in the long run.

"The board has no axe to grind here. We're just trying to do what's right from what we learned from people both within and (outside) the district."

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