How high schools are allowing certain fall sports on campus while full remote learning is in effect
Sports: OK. Campus classes: Not yet OK.
On the surface, it might not seem to square.
School districts across the state are trying to get the word out to parents and students about how sporting events will be allowed on campuses this fall when, in many cases, classes will not be, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Illinois High School Association announced last week certain fall sports -- cross country, golf, tennis and swimming -- will allow competition on school campuses.
Many school districts, to start the 2020-21 school year, are using a hybrid model of learning in which students are sometimes in school and sometimes at home via remote learning, or they are in a full remote learning until further notice.
How can sports on campus be OK but classes are not?
It's a question meticulously thought through by administrators and school boards.
"If you're comparing a classroom of 20 students to 20 varsity tennis players being spread out outside on tennis courts, we feel we can safely manage those athletes right now a lot better," said Glenbrook North athletic director John Catalano, whose school is starting the year on full remote learning. "We just can't have 3,000 students and staff in our building right now. It's not doable. But we can manage small groups safely, especially these sports that are being allowed because they are outside, because we can socially distance with them, and because we can do screening in an efficient way."
The IHSA has deemed the fall sports that will be allowed to compete this fall as low risk. That, and the fact the IHSA is following the Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines for the management of these sports seems to give reassurance to athletic departments that are trying to navigate these uncharted waters.
"I think it has also helped us that we offered some sports camps this summer, and our enrollments filled up quickly with a surge of kids because kids were so eager to come back to school to do something, and we were able to manage them safely and efficiently," Catalano said.
"Through that, I think we recognized how important it is for kids to get back to some sort of normal life. It's not so much about wins and losses with these sports, it's about giving kids the ability to connect. It's about their physical and mental health and well-being and it's about the opportunity we have to allow them to do certain things that they want to do while remaining safe."
Many districts are continuing to think outside the box on how to safely stage not only certain sports, but also certain academic and other extracurricular activities on campus.
Even for schools that are in full-remote learning, certain on-campus activities are being planned.
"We are going to use the model we have for athletics, following the guidelines of working with small groups, and scale that and use it for academics. That is important for us," said Lela Majstorovic, Elgin Area School District U-46 assistant superintendent for secondary schools, instruction and equity. U-46 has 12,000 students in five high schools and using remote learning for the first semester.
"We'd love to provide in-person learning because we know studies show kids who participate in things like sports or activities feel a sense of community and an attachment to the school and that helps build relationships and a sense of belonging," Majstorovic said.
"But right now, we've got to develop other plans. We're working on a plan for getting small groups of kids into the building, and like sports where a practice is only an hour to an hour-and-a-half, you may have these kids in the building for limited times and in limited spaces for certain classes and activities. We don't have a timeline for that yet, but we are in the process of planning for that."
In Naperville, the plan is to have academic and extracurricular programs fully following the athletic model within the next six weeks, if not sooner.
"Our building is not closed," said Sinikka Mondini, executive director of communications for Naperville District 203, which covers Naperville Central and Naperville North high schools. "We are fully remote right now. But we'll have administration in the building, we may have teachers teaching their classes from the building and our goal is to get to an enhanced stage of e-learning as soon as possible.
"This would be things like science teachers bringing in a small group of students for a lab; or for an automotive class, having a small group of kids come in for that. We are going to try to be creative with small groups, but our message is our buildings are open and our staff will be available."
Many schools, such as Warren in Gurnee which is on full remote learning until at least Oct. 2, are hoping to make their staffs available to their kids most in need of in-person learning and individualized assistance.
"Particularly for those students where it's not the best plan for them to be at home on a computer, we want to get them back into school," Warren Superintendent John Ahlgrim said. "We've got an English learners program, we've got students with IEPs (individualized education programs) and we've got some students with special needs or who struggled last spring with remote learning.
"We know that all kids would benefit from in-person learning, but we are making a special effort to focus on these kids who could use the extra help the most, and I think being able to do sports in small groups this summer has shown us that we can do other things at school as long as we can manage the students and social distance and keep track of who they come in contact with. Even if we can't bring in everyone, I think we can still easily bring in small groups."
At Barrington, all teachers will be required to work in the building as they teach a fully remote curriculum, but students will be given opportunities to come to campus for managed activities.
"We are going to seek and find opportunities to have our kids back on campus, either in 1-on-1 situations in meetings with teachers, or in small-group settings," Barrington Superintendent Brian Harris said. "We will take it event by event, activity by activity, but our parents and students are seeking a sense of normalcy and I want that, too. Our teachers want that.
"We see some of these opportunities like a chemistry lab, or other small group situations in school like we see some of these outdoor sports -- small groups that we are able to control and manage safely. We can't have 3,000 people in our building right now, we can't even have half that. But under certain conditions, we can make things work. I call it 'modified remote,' and we will seek those opportunities academically and athletically whenever we can."