Just 9 of 105 suburban school districts returning students to classrooms full-time
Hundreds of thousands of suburban children are resuming schoolwork within the next few weeks, but this year fewer than 6,200 of them will go back to their classrooms full time.
Only 9 of 105 suburban districts are offering "in-person" learning, the Illinois State Board of Education reports.
That option, under the state board's definition, includes schools that allow parents to choose whether to send their child to school five days a week or start the year with remote learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another 30 of the suburban school districts will open with a "blended" model, where students are split into two groups and alternate between remote learning and in-class sessions.
The remaining 66 suburban school districts will have full-time remote learning, with kids having classes exclusively online.
Leaders of the suburban schools opening their doors say they are confident they can keep kids and staff safe.
"As we looked at the health and safety protocols and guidelines, we made the determination that we could safely open schools and meet or exceed the recommendations that ISBE, the health department and other state agencies were providing school districts," said Larry Hewitt, superintendent at Northbrook Elementary District 28.
Others opening for in-person learning are Butler Elementary District 53 in Oak Brook, Glen Ellyn Elementary District 89, Grass Lake Elementary District 36 in Antioch, Itasca Elementary District 10, Medinah Elementary District 11, Rondout Elementary District 72 in Lake Forest, Roselle Elementary District 12, Rosemont Elementary District 78 and West Northfield Elementary District 31 in Northbrook.
Elsewhere in the state, going back to the classroom is a much more common choice for school leaders. More than 200 public school districts in Illinois will start the year with in-person learning, according to an ISBE survey of 671 school districts published at isbe.net/coronavirus. However, those schools account for only about 154,000 of the 1.6 million students represented in the survey.
Across the state, the most common reopening plan is the "blended" option, according to the ISBE survey. Parents have the ability to choose full remote learning for their children under this option, as well.
Statewide, 320 districts are starting the school year this way, including the more than 5,500 students at Geneva Unit District 304.
"We surveyed parents and 80% chose in-person," said District 304 Superintendent Kent Mutchler. "The issues are the cleaning protocols, requiring everyone to wear a mask and spacing the kids out."
The plan is to have one group of students in class Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and the other group on Tuesdays and Thursdays one week. The next week, the groups will swap days.
Space is one of the biggest hurdles for many suburban schools. The state is requiring students be seated at least 6 feet from one another. That's one reason the most popular reopening option in the suburbs -- 66 out of 105 school districts -- is full remote learning.
Statewide, only 150 school districts reported plans to start the year fully remote, the ISBE survey shows. But those school districts account for the vast majority of students -- more than 920,000 of them.
Hewitt looked at every nook to bring students back to the Northbrook schools.
"We evaluated every possible learning space in our buildings," Hewitt said. "We are prepared to use nontraditional classroom space, like the library. And we have had to hire more staff to accommodate our decision."
In opting for full remote learning, Winfield Elementary District 34 focused on staffing and the importance of stability.
"I have one middle school math teacher," said Superintendent Matt Rich. "If anyone gets any single symptom, they're out for at least 10 days. And where are you going to get a substitute who wants to come into a room that just lost a teacher to COVID?"
Consistency of education was Rich's greatest concern, and he said the school board believed the best method to deliver that is to start the year remotely.
Elmhurst District 205 cited insufficient staffing in switching to fully remote learning just within the last few days after hundreds of teachers requested remote assignments based on health conditions.
Some suburban districts that will start the year fully remote have set a target date for students to return to the classrooms. For some it's six weeks after the start of school; others have planned to do remote learning for the first quarter or trimester. But Rich said his school board hasn't set a target date.
"It's something we'll revisit at every board meeting," he said. "Setting a date now won't change the situation we're dealing with."