Glen Ellyn District 41 shifts to all-remote learning for fall
Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 has joined the growing list of school systems starting the new year with all-remote learning amid a raging pandemic.
After initially planning to partially reopen schools with a blend of in-person and online instruction, the K-8 district instead will pivot to fully virtual classes.
The school board approved the change Thursday night after the district wrestled with health and safety concerns and faced significant staffing constraints.
"I don't see that we have another option quite frankly," board member Jessica Buttimer said, "and I think the quality of instruction is going to be far better in a fully remote model when we have teachers who are feeling comfortable and safe."
District officials are keenly aware that DuPage County has triggered a warning from the Illinois Department of Public Health based on one key COVID-19 metric. The county reported 73 new virus cases per 100,000 residents for the week ending July 25, exceeding the targeted level of fewer than 50 per 100,000 people.
As the first day of school looms on Aug. 21, more and more families have sought a digital-only option, citing rising case numbers within the county and COVID-19 risks, officials said. About 20% of the district's students wanted to enroll in all-remote learning.
"As that starts growing, you're trying to run two separate models of schools at the same time with the same number of staff members that you were running one model of school under," Superintendent Melissa Kaczkowski said.
Last week, the district received polling data from unions representing teachers and support staff. About 72% of surveyed employees requested 100% distance learning.
"They have not issued threats. They've been clear in communicating their level of fear and concern, but it's been done appropriately," Kaczkowski said.
As of Thursday, 65 staff members also have requested accommodations and leaves of absence, Assistant Superintendent Marci Conlin said. Accommodation requests have doubled in the last two weeks.
"Every day, we are having staff reach out informing us that they're being put on quarantine by their doctors and won't be able to return to work until they have been released or they've had a negative COVID test," Conlin told the board. "We need to remember that staff don't live in a bubble and that we should anticipate that this will continue to happen, adding to our staffing concerns and challenges."
The district would not have been able to staff in-person instruction without hiring long-term substitute teachers, assuming the district could hire them during a national shortage, officials said.
"As more districts have announced that they will start the year in a full remote model, we've had a number of staff requesting to work remote due to their own child-care issues," Conlin said.
Remote learning will look different from the model used during mandated school shutdowns in the spring. Attendance will be taken daily, and grades will be issued.
The district would continue ensuring families have internet connectivity to access virtual learning, McCluskey said.
Earlier Thursday, parents and district teachers offered vastly different views on back-to-school plans.
Tami Allen, a teacher at Churchill Elementary, expressed confidence in the district's preventive measures against the spread of the virus.
"I would much rather prefer to see my students from behind masks than through computer screens," she said.
Brett Cooper said he was speaking on behalf of 92 other teachers when he called on the board to "not ask teachers to be a potential vector of disease and death."
"If in a classroom, we teachers are masked and constrained by social distancing and regimented protocols, our impact will be minimal," Cooper said. "If at home we are teaching remotely, at least our students can be comfortable and safe as they fully see our faces and hear our voices."