St. Charles District 303 to reopen schools in phases
St. Charles Unit District 303 is rolling out a modified reopening plan that will send elementary and middle school students back to school in phases, while high schoolers will begin the academic year remotely.
The adjustments are the result of frequently changing state guidelines, evolving coronavirus circumstances and a lack of resources at the high school level to accommodate both hybrid and remote instructional models, administrators said during a meeting Monday.
Instead of welcoming all in-person learners back to school at once, district officials are taking a staggered approach to ensure the new health and safety protocols are implemented successfully, Superintendent Jason Pearson said. School board members unanimously supported the reopening plan, which they said offers flexibility in a difficult and ever-changing situation.
Administrators have watched closely the past couple of weeks as schools across the country began reopening, only to close again days later due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Pearson said.
"As a district, we do not want to make the same mistake," he said. "We want to make sure, because our staff and student safety is so important, that we are able to provide the training and support that students need to be in our buildings safely."
All students will still begin classes Aug. 19, according to an updated 2020-21 calendar approved by the school board. But the timing for when they are expected to report to school depends on their grade level.
Kindergartners through second-graders will kick off in-person learning with a shortened schedule the first three days, followed by a regular schedule beginning Aug. 24, according to a letter sent to parents this week. The youngest students will be entering schools first because they are "the least equipped to interact in a remote learning environment," Pearson said.
For third through fifth grades, students will primarily be learning online for the first week, but will be invited in small groups to visit their classrooms and meet their teachers, officials said. A regular elementary schedule will begin Aug. 26 with all kids in the building.
Middle schoolers will participate in remote instruction the first six days of school, though each student will be assigned one day -- based on grade level and last name -- to visit their buildings, walk their schedules and understand the new regulations, Pearson said.
For example, on Aug. 19, sixth-graders in Group A will attend school in person. The next day, schools will be open for sixth-graders in Group B. That same opportunity will be given to seventh-graders, then eighth-graders, before a regular hybrid schedule involving all three grade levels begins Aug. 27, according to the letter.
All elementary and middle school families who chose the district's online-only option will also begin remote learning Aug. 19.
At the high schools, developing a blend of hybrid and remote schedules was more challenging than expected, largely because of the diversity of courses and the credentials required for those teachers, Chief Academic Officer Denise Herrmann said. Roughly 13% of secondary-level students opted for online-only classes -- not enough to meet the enrollment threshold for most electives, she said.
Rather than limit the course catalog for either group, Herrmann said, officials decided to pool all students and teachers together and start the year with a fully remote schedule.
"We took a step back and said, 'What can we do that really is going to be the most accommodating so we don't feel like any of them are having to sacrifice quality instruction or any of their classes?'" she said.
After Labor Day, students will likely have some opportunities to return to the classroom in small groups, particularly for programs that warrant hands-on learning, Herrmann said. Administrators eventually plan to take another assessment and could recreate the schedule, depending on the instructional preferences of families at that point.
The reopening plan received support from St. Charles Education Association President Joe Blomquist, who said the district is offering the highest-quality education possible, while also "problem-solving in every facet" and providing adequate resources to ensure the safety of students and employees.
"As an association, we are not pushing to go fully remote right now, and the reason why is because the action the administration has taken have been at the core of what our biggest concerns are," he said. "If any district can do it, we can do it."