Push to decrease social distancing in classrooms divides many in District 25

  • A debate continues in Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 about whether to fully reopen all of its schools, including Thomas Middle School.

    A debate continues in Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 about whether to fully reopen all of its schools, including Thomas Middle School. Daily Herald File Photo

 
 
Updated 11/2/2020 6:48 PM
This story was updated to say students attend full-day class sessions two times a week, under District 25's hybrid plan.

A push to decrease social distancing in classrooms that would lead to a full reopening of Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 schools has drawn sharp differences of opinion among school board members, district administrators, parents and teachers.

The board was expected to have voted as early as Thursday night to set a date to return to full in-person learning -- which a number of parents have been calling for since the start of the school year -- but the elected panel agreed instead to resurvey all parents before making a decision.

 

At the heart of the matter is how the 6-foot social distancing standard recommended by health experts is defined.

For Superintendent Lori Bein and administrators, it's the distance from the edge of one student to the edge of the next, which means a dozen students can fit into an average sized classroom at a time.

Board member Rich Olejniczak said he believes the measurement should be taken from head to head, which would allow perhaps as many as 20 students per classroom.

"We gotta look at how do we change the dynamic here. How do we get kids back in class?" Olejniczak said. "COVID is here for a long time. It's gonna be here. We have to figure out how to work with it."

Bein said under the shorter distance, more students would be required to stay home and quarantine if a student in their vicinity tested positive for COVID-19 or showed symptoms. She said it would tax school nurses already overwhelmed with contact tracing since a limited number of students were allowed back in schools Oct. 12.

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Since the start of the school year, the district has reported nine positive COVID-19 cases, while 121 staff members and 223 students have been required to quarantine, either because they tested positive, had symptoms or were in close contact with someone who was infected, officials said.

Cases are surging in Illinois, averaging 5,000 new diagnoses a day for the past week and hitting a single-day record of 6,943 new cases on Friday.

Bein's survey would ask parents about their comfort levels with remote, hybrid and in-person learning and would present them with the possibility of reducing or eliminating 6-foot distancing. Even if the district fully reopens its doors, it would be required to provide a remote learning option for families, under state rules.

Since the district began a transition to its hybrid phase almost three weeks ago, more than 4,000 students have returned for full-day class sessions two times a week, while some 1,200 students have remained fully remote.

Per the board's direction, Bein also will sit down with the 460-member Arlington Teachers Association about working conditions.

Teachers and parents already have begun to weigh in. Following rallies by pro-reopening parents at previous board meetings, Thursday night was the teachers' turn. Educators wore red and honked car horns outside the District 25 administration building while union President Kelly Drevline addressed board members.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We are not opposed to in-person learning. We are opposed to unsafe learning," Drevline said.

"Try to think of our classroom as your homes. Right now in the midst of the pandemic, most of us would not invite 25 people into our homes, especially if you didn't know where those 25 people have been."

Drevline called the return of all students at once "irresponsible."

Besides Olejniczak, other board members Thursday didn't directly address his proposal, but some have previously shown an openness to it.

While some parents said they prefer the current hybrid system, many others said they were pleased the board was finally considering a move to a full reopening.

"Schools are open in Illinois, and the simple fact is there is not a risk to having our schools open full time," said Stephanie Levinsky. "You've operated with the metric of feelings -- feelings of safety and caution have resided over the scientific fact that schools are safe and could be open every day."

Bein is expected to report back to the board on Nov. 12.

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