Why isn't Dist. 21 fully in-person? Officials point to distancing, class sizes

  • Michael Connolly

    Michael Connolly

 
 
Updated 2/19/2021 8:27 PM

While other Northwest suburban school districts have returned to full-time in-person learning, Wheeling Township Elementary District 21 officials said this week they can't do that -- so long as they continue adhering to a 6-foot social distancing standard in classrooms, amid other logistical challenges.

But they said the forthcoming implementation of a districtwide saliva COVID-19 testing program and positive trends in the local virus rate bode well for getting more students back to school for longer periods.

 

"Particularly as it relates to the elementary (schools), moving toward full in-person in full days is predicated on community spread moving back, unless you choose to deviate from the 6 feet," Superintendent Michael Connolly told school board members during a meeting Thursday night. "That's the best we can do. And again, I fully acknowledge this will not happen fast enough and it will not happen immediately, and that is very disappointing for many. I fully recognize that. We are honestly doing the best that we can do."

Connolly recommended against changing the 6-foot distancing guideline recommended by public health experts, in light of an increased COVID-19 testing regimen the district plans to implement. Having those regular, weekly tests available for teachers and students might allow the district eventually to relax the distancing standard, Connolly said, thus increasing classroom capacities.

"This is the keystone to being able to get our kids back full time," he said of the tests, conducted by Shield Illinois, which the district will pay for using federal stimulus dollars.

While expressing support for the testing program, school board members Thursday night didn't have a formal debate about whether to change the 6-foot rule, though at least one board member expressed strong support of it.

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By that measurement, most classrooms have been able to host 15 students under the current hybrid, in-person program. Elementary school students are able to attend a daily two-hour, 15-minute session in the morning or afternoon. Middle-schoolers can attend two-hour, 40-minute in-person sessions twice a week.

Sixty percent of families have chosen the in-person option, while 40% have opted for remote, virtual learning.

Connolly said other districts have moved to full-time learning because more of their students have opted for remote learning and because of differences in the class sizes and physical space among the districts.

For example, in Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54, which began offering daily in-person learning Wednesday, 52% of families have chosen in-person versus 48% who elected to stay remote.

About a half-dozen parents continued to push the District 21 board Thursday to return to full in-person learning.

"In the beginning of the pandemic, we were 'all in this together,'" said parent Debbie Kasperek. "But currently our neighboring school districts are back to full day in-person learning, and suddenly it no longer feels like we're all in this together. It feels like our students have been somewhat left behind."

Connolly said working groups of teachers and administrators continue to meet, and he would bring possible recommendations to a special school board meeting March 4. That could include revisiting the hybrid model for middle schools.

"We acknowledge we have got to get the middle school kids in longer days and more days. It's not enough," Connolly said. "I think we are very close to being able to do that."

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