District 21 elementary students to return March 29 for regular classes

  • A plan by Wheeling Township Elementary District 21 Superintendent Michael Connolly, left, to return elementary students to schools for full-day, in-person learning earned the support of school board members including board President Phil Pritzker. Both are pictured at Hawthorne Early Childhood School in 2019.

    A plan by Wheeling Township Elementary District 21 Superintendent Michael Connolly, left, to return elementary students to schools for full-day, in-person learning earned the support of school board members including board President Phil Pritzker. Both are pictured at Hawthorne Early Childhood School in 2019. Daily Herald File Photo 2019

 
 
Updated 3/4/2021 11:11 PM

Wheeling Township Elementary District 21 students in grades K-5 will be able to return to full, daily, in-person learning starting Monday, March 29, the school board decided Thursday night.

For families that have signed up for in-person learning, it will mark a transition from a daily two-hour, 15-minute session in the morning or afternoon, to the normal six-and-a-half-hour school day. The move also comes with the relaxation of a 6-foot distancing standard in just over half of the district's 150 classrooms, to as little as 4 feet between desks.

 

But in recommending adoption of Superintendent Michael Connolly's latest reopening plan, most school board members said they felt comfortable with mitigations the district plans to implement in those classrooms, such as plexiglass dividers on desks and air filtration devices.

The decision Thursday night also comes on the heels of a new weekly Shield Illinois saliva testing system that will be implemented in the district March 15, and as more and more teachers get vaccinated. At least half have gotten their first dose, officials said.

"The combination of all those things is worth the opportunity to move forward and return to as much in-person learning as we can," said board President Phil Pritzker.

While all seven board members expressed the desire to return more students to schools, approval of the superintendent's plan came on a rare 4-3 vote. Pritzker, on the elected panel for more than three decades, said he couldn't remember the last time there was such a split.

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That's because some board members urged more caution in a return date, particularly as families may be traveling during spring break the week of March 22.

Some members sought a reopening when the district hits metrics outlined in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's so-called yellow zone. Namely, it would mean fewer than 50 new weekly cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 in the area; currently, it's 88 per 100,000.

"This shouldn't be calendar-driven, it should be data-driven," said Bill Harrison, who voted "no" along with Staci Allan and Debbi McAtee on setting the exact return date.

While elementary school students who have opted for in-person learning will be back in buildings, middle schoolers won't have a full return, under Connolly's plan. The revised hybrid system for grades 6-8, set to take effect Monday, March 15, will increase classroom time from two half-days per week to five full days over the course of two weeks.

Were all middle schools to fully reopen, Connolly said few classrooms would be able to keep to 6-foot distancing. And, he said there is more risk of infection with older students, pointing to an outbreak of nine cases last month that led to a temporary shutdown of South Middle School in Arlington Heights Elementary District 25.

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