District 203 exploring expanded in-person learning opportunities
Naperville Unit District 203 parents are urging school leaders to offer a full-time schedule for in-person learning, saying hybrid instruction is not sufficient to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students.
Administrators on Monday pointed to current COVID-19 data, capacity limits and updated public health guidance as logistical challenges for accommodating the 71% of students who favor classroom learning over an online-only option. But Superintendent Dan Bridges said his team is "actively planning" to expand in-person instruction at all grade levels as community transmission rates decline, likely after spring break.
"Bringing the greatest amount of students back for an increase in the amount of learning time has always been our goal," he said. "We're hopeful the metrics will continue to allow us to get there this school year."
Models for an adjusted in-person schedule are expected to be presented at the March 15 board meeting, Bridges said. The remote option also will remain available.
Administrators also are preparing for the fall, when they expect to bring students back to school all day, five days per week, he said, "so long as our state government or public health officials don't tell us we can't."
But dozens of community members who spoke or submitted written comments criticized the district's "Return to Learn" plan and timeline, saying the administration and school board have failed students by delaying face-to-face instruction. Several parents and students expressed concerns over potential learning gaps and mental health issues stemming from months of enhanced e-learning.
"We are here because of your inadequacy, non-transparency and a complete lack of communication," parent Lauren Persin said. "You have no idea the burden you have placed on these children. It's a travesty what you are doing."
Parent Chris Pieters presented a petition signed by more than 1,300 people, calling on school board members to demand that Bridges "deliver and execute a plan" for returning to full-time in-person learning by April 7, or be fired.
Frustrations were exacerbated Monday when about 60 community members were not allowed inside the board meeting due to capacity limits, said Michele Fenton, a mom of two sixth-graders. Initially, they were told they'd be able to address the board one at a time as other speakers left, she said, but once the meeting started, they were informed they could not enter.
"It's our legal right to be able to voice our concerns to the board, and we were stifled," Fenton said.
Spokeswoman Sinikka Mondini said the district has been adhering to a 50-person limit at board meetings, leaving about 25 spots available for the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who were unable to speak are encouraged to submit written comments via the Let's Talk platform, she said.
"It is our practice to not exceed the 50-person limit in our school buildings and to not mix cohorts of people," Mondini said.
About half the group stuck around during the public comment portion, waiting outside Naperville Central High School in freezing temperatures and listening to the livestream on YouTube, said Jena McKinnon, a mother of four District 203 students.
"Everyone was just disappointed and defeated," she said. "All these parents just care about their kids and want their voices heard."
Board President Kristin Fitzgerald said she and her colleagues understand community members' concerns and share their support for in-person learning. But she also acknowledged the challenges administrators are facing to ensure schools operate safely.
A 6-foot social distancing requirement is the "greatest barrier" to getting all in-person learners back in school at once, Bridges said.
While the COVID-19 positivity rate is down to about 3.2%, District 203 ZIP codes recorded a weekly infection rate of 108 new cases per 100,000 people, which is considered a high level of transmission, according to data presented Monday. Recently updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allows for more flexibility in distancing regulations if the transmission level drops to moderate or low, Bridges said, potentially allowing more kids into the buildings at a time.
COVID-19 metrics are updated weekly on the district's dashboard.