District 203 elementary students to gradually return to in-person learning next month

  • At a school board meeting immediately following a rally that drew hundreds of community members in support of in-person learning, Naperville Unit District 203 administrators announced updated plans to bring elementary students back to school in phases starting in mid-October.

      At a school board meeting immediately following a rally that drew hundreds of community members in support of in-person learning, Naperville Unit District 203 administrators announced updated plans to bring elementary students back to school in phases starting in mid-October. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 9/23/2020 5:12 PM

Three weeks after Naperville Unit District 203 kicked off its academic year with remote learning, administrators say the greatest lesson learned so far is the importance of getting the youngest students back in the classroom.

Actively engaging with live online curriculum for hours at a time is emotionally taxing for early elementary learners, despite the improvements made to the e-learning experience since last spring, Superintendent Dan Bridges said. Teachers also have reported difficulties with collecting authentic data to assess those grade levels.

 

That feedback has been the driving force behind a plan to gradually bring elementary students back to school as early as mid-October, Bridges said.

The district is on track to transition into the second stage of its "Return to Learn" plan the week of Oct. 12, he said, offering "enhanced e-learning" that now prioritizes in-person instruction for early education through second grade.

After the youngest learners are back in the classroom, third through fifth grades will return in phases the following weeks, Bridges said. An online-only model will remain available for those who aren't comfortable going back to school.

The format of in-person learning has not yet been determined, he said, noting half-day, hybrid and other scheduling options are being considered. A survey sent out to families this week will help the district finalize details.

Middle- and high-schoolers will continue with e-learning, though educators are expected to offer some in-person experiences for priority groups, Bridges said. Students also will be able to access school buildings if they need a quiet place to work or a stable internet connection.

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The updated plan was announced Monday during a school board meeting, where several parents voiced frustrations with the e-learning model and urged district leaders to reinstate an in-person option. A similar message was conveyed ahead of the meeting during a rally that drew hundreds of community members to Naperville's Rotary Hill.

"Many of us want to see schools open to the greatest extent allowed," said parent Amanda Mullarkey, whose children are in kindergarten and third grade. "It's not developmentally appropriate to isolate children indefinitely. We need leaders who will move forward with facts and transparency instead of fear."

Several speakers directed their criticism toward Bridges, who is tasked with developing and implementing reopening plans.

As a parent and administrator, he said, he's empathetic of the unique needs of families, and shares the goal of getting students back in the classroom -- as long as it can be done safely.

"This personally impacts me in my house as well," Bridges said. "I hear you, and I understand, and it remains my commitment to get our students back to in-school learning as soon as we can do so within the parameters that are put in place for us."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The district's "Return to Learn" plan is designed to be responsive to evolving COVID-19 conditions and evaluated every six weeks.

As students start returning to school, administrators and school board members stressed that in-person learning won't be the same as it was before the pandemic hit. Desks will be spread apart, classrooms will be structured differently, supplies will not be shared, and students will have their own space during recess.

"It's been exhausting for everybody to go through what we've gone through since March," board member Kristine Gericke said. "I know we have the right people helping to develop these plans. ... If we do it together, hopefully we do it right and mitigate any problems down the road."

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