'Let us go back': Students, parents in Wheaton demand schools totally reopen

  • Students lined the front row at a rally at Memorial Park in Wheaton Tuesday to demand in-person schooling be allowed.

      Students lined the front row at a rally at Memorial Park in Wheaton Tuesday to demand in-person schooling be allowed. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 9/9/2020 7:39 AM

As students across the Western suburbs begin the school year with remote learning, hundreds of parents and students rallied in a downtown Wheaton park Tuesday night to demand a total return to classrooms and sports.

Parents of student-athletes in Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 organized the demonstration to increase pressure on school systems to make the leap to in-person instruction even as coronavirus case counts continue to climb in much of the region, particularly among young people. DuPage County has registered more than 1,300 new infections within the past 14 days.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Parent Dave Ruggles speaks to hundreds at a rally in Wheaton Tuesday to encourage support for sending children back to in-person schooling.
  Parent Dave Ruggles speaks to hundreds at a rally in Wheaton Tuesday to encourage support for sending children back to in-person schooling. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

The gathering in Wheaton's Memorial Park drew participants from as far away as Mokena and Orland Park, Western Springs and Huntley.

Along with students, some teachers and coaches, parents at the rally made the case for reopening classrooms, arguing that the loss of social interaction in schools hurts their children's emotional, mental and social well-being.

"Any parent could tell you that it's not good for kids to be staring at a screen for 25 hours a week," said Eric Brown, a parent of five children learning from home in District 200. "It's not good for the kids. It's not good for the teachers and what they do best."

A week into the school year, District 200 parents called attention to digital divides exposed by distance learning and technical glitches with the remote launch.

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People hold signs at a rally in Wheaton Tuesday to demand school districts send children back to schools for in-person instruction.
  People hold signs at a rally in Wheaton Tuesday to demand school districts send children back to schools for in-person instruction. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

"Even if it was being executed well, it can't possibly educate the kids like in-person learning would do," said Dave Ruggles, an organizer whose son is a junior and varsity basketball player at Wheaton Warrenville South High School.

Teens who shared the stage voiced frustrations that students in private schools and surrounding states have returned to class and the playing field.

"For some students, school is the only place they feel safe and comfortable," said Jaylen Brown, a Wheaton Warrenville South senior, who would normally be on a football field Friday night, as a tight end.

A contingent from St. Charles Unit District 303 stood front and center with their signs. They have rallied twice and plan to do so again before a Sept. 14 school board meeting, parent Shannon Sullivan said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Hundreds attend a rally at Memorial Park in Wheaton to push for in-person schooling.
  Hundreds attend a rally at Memorial Park in Wheaton to push for in-person schooling. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

Ruggles urged the crowd to show up at school board meetings and to stage blackouts of "e-not-so-much" learning.

"We want football now," he said, and full seasons for basketball and baseball, including state championship playoffs. "We don't want participation patches."

But school districts have struggled to overcome daunting logistical challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. In DuPage, 145 schools have pivoted to remote learning for the fall, or more than 59% of districts surveyed by the state board of education.

Many area school districts scaled back their reopening plans after the Illinois Department of Public Health issued revised guidelines Aug. 12.

In District 200, administrators said the shifting state recommendations made reopening plans "impossible to implement."

Instead of a planned hybrid model, students in sixth through 12th grades began the school year with remote learning. Elementary students are receiving in-person instruction, but administrators removed the hourlong lunch/recess period from school schedules.

Speakers stand on stage at a Wheaton rally to push for in-person schooling Tuesday.
  Speakers stand on stage at a Wheaton rally to push for in-person schooling Tuesday. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

"We continue to work on revised plans that will allow us to bring middle and high school students back for an in-person learning experience for the families that select that option," a district spokeswoman said in a statement. "It is critical that we monitor the success of our current in-person learning opportunities and the metrics shared by the DuPage County Health Department through their Return to School Framework as we revise our plans."

Yet even one District 200 teacher was among the protesters.

"There is no substitute for the face-to-face contact, for the interpersonal," said Chris Whaley, a soccer coach and teacher. "By far, last week was my most disappointing as a teacher."

The DuPage health department rates the current level of community transmission as "moderate." Under that tier, the guidelines for schools suggest some students participate in virtual and some participate in-person, with school officials using "their discretion and expertise" to determine which student populations should receive face-to-face instruction.

Mostly students pack the front row as Wheaton parent Dave Ruggles speaks at a rally to push for in-person schooling during the coronavirus pandemic.
  Mostly students pack the front row as Wheaton parent Dave Ruggles speaks at a rally to push for in-person schooling during the coronavirus pandemic. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

In addition to monitoring that framework, Glenbard High School District 87 officials are tracking four criteria for returning to in-person learning. The district last week announced students will stick with remote learning for at least another six weeks, delaying plans for hybrid instruction.

"Rising numbers in one of our four criteria -- health data about the growing number of COVID-19 cases and the positivity rate from state and county officials -- inhibit our ability to provide in-person classes that are both safe and productive for students," a district spokeswoman said in a statement Tuesday.

The number of cases in the towns within the district continues to rise. The number of new cases per 100,000 also is trending upward.

Since July 19, the total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 has jumped from 195 to 482 in Glen Ellyn; from 452 to 744 in Lombard; from 557 to 831 in Carol Stream; and from 764 to 927 in Glendale Heights, according to the health department.

Administrators will continuously monitor the metrics and re-evaluate the learning model again on Oct. 13. All students and staff members are working on district-issued iPads.

Parent Dave Ruggles, one of the organizers of a rally pushing for in-person schooling, turns toward the crowd after asking all students to come to the stage at Memorial Park in Wheaton Tuesday.
  Parent Dave Ruggles, one of the organizers of a rally pushing for in-person schooling, turns toward the crowd after asking all students to come to the stage at Memorial Park in Wheaton Tuesday. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

"Our students and staff have been engaged in remote learning since the first day of school, and we feel that our remote learning is functioning well," the spokeswoman said. "Teachers are livestreaming lessons and students are collaborating in Zoom breakout rooms. With iPads, Zoom, Schoology and other tools, we are confident about the features provided by our robust technology infrastructure."

In St. Charles Unit District 303, officials are taking a phased approach to bringing groups of students back to school.

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