Naperville rally speakers keep pressure on for schools to reopen

  • A girl holds a sign that reads "I iz gten dummerer bye the minit" at a rally to support in-person learning Monday in downtown Naperville.

      A girl holds a sign that reads "I iz gten dummerer bye the minit" at a rally to support in-person learning Monday in downtown Naperville. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Several hundred people attended a rally Monday in downtown Naperville to urge Naperville-area schools to transition from e-learning to an in-person educational model.

      Several hundred people attended a rally Monday in downtown Naperville to urge Naperville-area schools to transition from e-learning to an in-person educational model. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Participants in a rally Monday in downtown Naperville expressed support for returning to school, athletics programs and clubs in person amid the coronavirus.

      Participants in a rally Monday in downtown Naperville expressed support for returning to school, athletics programs and clubs in person amid the coronavirus. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Five-year-old Jamie Mullarkey was the youngest person to speak at a rally Monday in downtown Naperville in support of returning to school.

      Five-year-old Jamie Mullarkey was the youngest person to speak at a rally Monday in downtown Naperville in support of returning to school. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • At the end of a rally Monday in downtown Naperville, the remaining crowd marches to the Naperville Central High School, where a District 203 school board meeting was taking place.

      At the end of a rally Monday in downtown Naperville, the remaining crowd marches to the Naperville Central High School, where a District 203 school board meeting was taking place. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 9/22/2020 8:37 AM

Their family circumstances may all be different, and their remote learning experiences have varied. But the hundreds of community members who congregated Monday night in downtown Naperville shared a common rallying cry: Get students back in the classrooms and on athletic fields.

A group of Naperville-area parents organized the demonstration to urge their local school systems -- Naperville Unit District 203 and the neighboring Indian Prairie Unit District 204 -- to transition from e-learning to an in-person instructional model as quickly as possible. Word of their efforts spread, drawing like-minded parents, educators, students and other participants from districts across the suburbs.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
A person dressed as the Grim Reaper carries a sign urging schools to reopen for in-person learning.
  A person dressed as the Grim Reaper carries a sign urging schools to reopen for in-person learning. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

"The people who we should be putting the focus on are our children, and they're getting shoved to the side by people saying, 'We can't do it,' rather than, 'How can we do it?'" District 203 mom and rally organizer Ann Marie Tracy said. "We need to change this. We need to get our schools back open."

E-learning started Sept. 1 for District 203, with District 204 following suit Sept. 3. Both districts' superintendents have said they're now turning their attention toward bringing students back into the buildings safely, starting as early as next month for some groups. But they stressed the need to practice caution and follow public health protocols as they implement their back-to-school strategies.

Parents, students and other community members asked for more transparency and a greater sense of urgency among school leaders. Many argued the classroom experience offers social, emotional, academic and mental health benefits that can't be replicated in a remote setting.

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The hundreds of people who gathered Monday at Rotary Hill in downtown Naperville shared a rallying cry: Get students back in school.
  The hundreds of people who gathered Monday at Rotary Hill in downtown Naperville shared a rallying cry: Get students back in school. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

"We need stimulation, not isolation. We need data, not dishonesty. We need community instead of control," said District 203 parent Jacklyn Cook, who also helped to organize the demonstration.

The timing of Monday's rally at Rotary Hill was intended to bleed into the start of a District 203 school board meeting across the street at Naperville Central High School, where several parents voiced frustrations with the e-learning model. They asked district leaders to reinstate their original plan to give families a choice between some in-person learning and an online-only option for those who don't feel comfortable returning to school.

Districts 203 and 204 were among the many school systems that scaled back their reopening plans this summer due to evolving coronavirus conditions and updated guidance from state health and education officials.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Naperville Unit District 203 parent Jacklyn Cook was among the organizers of a rally for sending students back to the classroom for in-person learning. Hundreds of community members gathered Monday in downtown Naperville to show their support.
  Naperville Unit District 203 parent Jacklyn Cook was among the organizers of a rally for sending students back to the classroom for in-person learning. Hundreds of community members gathered Monday in downtown Naperville to show their support. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

Students with special needs and families with single or working parents are among those that may be particularly vulnerable to the challenges of e-learning, rally participants said. Kelly Gillenwater, the parent of a Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 senior with epilepsy, said the schools are not adequately serving students who have individualized education plans.

"Screen time is not a friend of seizure disorders," she said. "The brain drain of staring and not being able to engage with teachers and classmates is exhausting and makes him very tired, some days so much so that he sleeps during lunch and misses classes and appointments."

Some speakers also advocated for allowing students to participate in athletic programs, saying it teaches discipline, time management and leadership skills. Gov. J.B. Pritzker reiterated during a news conference Monday that high school football and other contact sports are unlikely to begin this fall, citing the advice of medical experts and a "relatively high" positivity rate of about 3.5%.

A person dressed as the Grim Reaper walks among the crowd at a rally to support in-person learning at Naperville-area schools Monday.
  A person dressed as the Grim Reaper walks among the crowd at a rally to support in-person learning at Naperville-area schools Monday. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

"We know our own sports, so leave it up to us to determine how risky they are," said Ella Woltman, a freshman at St. Laurence Catholic High School in Burbank. Her school is using a hybrid schedule, where she alternates between learning from home and in the classroom, but her volleyball season has been moved to the spring.

"It (reopening school) can be done," she shouted. "Your administration should fight for it."

In DuPage County, the number of COVID-19 tests that come back positive has been trending higher than the state average, according to the state and county health departments. From Sept. 6 to 12, the county averaged a 5.7% positivity rate and reported 75 infections per 100,000 people, though county health data shows the positivity rate has since been declining.

A couple holds a "Don't tread on me" flag at a rally to support in-person learning Monday across the street from Naperville Central High School. The flag was originally designed during the American Revolution.
  A couple holds a "Don't tread on me" flag at a rally to support in-person learning Monday across the street from Naperville Central High School. The flag was originally designed during the American Revolution. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

Some private schools, nearby districts and surrounding states have welcomed students back to their schools and athletic programs, Tracy said, causing Naperville-area parents to question why their kids can't do the same.

"We really feel it's in the best interest of our children to have them back in the classroom," she said. "We're not going to just sit by the sidelines anymore. We're going to demand a better option."

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