Wheaton District 200 reverses course, won't open middle, high schools
Just weeks before the start of the new academic year, Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 will reverse course and keep middle and high schools closed as a result of shifting state guidelines that made reopening plans "impossible to implement," officials announced Friday.
The district was one of the few area public school systems intending to forge ahead with at least some in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the path forward appeared more tenuous in recent days after school board members and administrators grew increasingly frustrated that new state health department guidelines surfaced at the eleventh hour.
Unveiled late Wednesday, the updated guidelines cover many aspects of pandemic-era school operations, but putting some protocols into practice presented a seemingly insurmountable obstacle for administrators also wrestling with staffing challenges.
Against that backdrop, Superintendent Jeff Schuler told families the district will scrap a hybrid model and have students in sixth through 12th grades start the school year with remote learning.
"I am greatly saddened and frustrated that we must change our current plans," Schuler wrote in a letter. "However, if these changes are measures that will keep our students, staff and community healthier and able to access education, we will adhere to these changes and move forward."
The district still hopes to start the year with in-person instruction for students in elementary schools and at Jefferson Early Childhood Center, but administrators will need to modify schedules to follow the new guidelines. The district also will look to push back the first day of school to Sept. 1, pending board approval.
"At the elementary schools and Jefferson, we have the opportunity to manage cohorts of students much better than at the middle and high schools with no movement during the day," Schuler said.
Several school board members expressed frustration with the new expectations, released hours before what was their last scheduled meeting ahead of the fall term.
Board member Chris Crabtree questioned how the district will run busing under updated guidance that states close contacts on a bus include students who sit three rows in front and three rows behind someone with a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19.
"Our state has us in stage 4. That is open schools," said Crabtree, referring to Gov. J.B. Pritzker's five-phase Restore Illinois plan. "And then we get document after document after document that make it even more difficult to open schools, but nobody at the state level or the county level is taking that responsibility to say it's unsustainable."
The superintendent raised concerns with implementing specific guidelines around contact tracing, cleaning and managing students and staff with COVID-19 symptoms. But his letter didn't directly address COVID-19 health data in the communities served by the district.
"Cases are spiking. Make no mistake, we're seeing some increases in that data and that's without kids in school," Schuler told the school board.
In a 10-page document, the state now recommends that if a student is sent home with suspected virus symptoms -- and there is a wide array of infection signs -- the rest of their household also must remain in quarantine until the individual receives a negative test result or alternative diagnosis.
If the sick student becomes a confirmed or probable case, the local health department conducting contact tracing will place siblings and other household contacts in quarantine for 14 days.
"This will be particularly difficult for staffing a school, as a teacher whose child or household member is sent home sick from school would result in the staff member being out of work for 14 days," Schuler wrote. "Providing substitute coverage for this would be extremely difficult as this new requirement would likely cause many staff members to need to stay home regularly. We would also expect to have a larger amount of the students out as a result of this change as well."
The state also recommends waiting up to 24 hours before starting to clean and disinfect areas used by someone with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19.
"In middle and high schools, a single student could have been in at least 8-10 areas at minimum throughout the course of a day. That would mean schools would likely need to close multiple classrooms and common areas, and even an entire school, in the event of an ill individual, for 24-48 hours," Schuler wrote. "This certainly would not allow for good continuity of a learning experience."
Meanwhile, the president of the Wheaton Warrenville Education Association has made clear that the teachers union has not been actively advocating for the school year to begin remotely. The union represents 1,100 licensed educators in the district.
But responding to a survey last week, 40% of union members indicated they would prefer a remote start.
"We want to be in front of our students because we know this is best for teaching and learning, but we also want to do this in the safest manner possible," union President Bryce Cann said.
The district hasn't run into significant issues staffing elementary teaching positions, receiving more than 1,000 applicants for those job openings, Assistant Superintendent Charlie Kyle said.
But the district has received 122 requests from educators with medial concerns who wanted to help run an optional virtual academy made available to families. The district placed about 94% of those teachers into the virtual academy.
"If we get many more leave requests, that could be a concern," Kyle told the board.
In his letter, Schuler said the district will update families with more details about remote learning, starting next week.
"We are committed to doing everything possible, within the guidelines, to create a path back toward in-person learning for all."