The Columbia School District Board of Education unanimously voted at a special meeting Monday night to resume in-person learning beginning Sept. 28.
The board approved a plan, specifics of which were sent to parents Tuesday, that allows for all students in grades K-5 to attend school from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Grades 6-12 students will use a hybrid model similar to the one the school originally proposed that will break students into groups that attend on different days.
One group will physically attend on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the other will do so Wednesdays and Thursdays.
On days when they do not attend in-person, students will attend remotely, and everyone will learn remotely on Fridays.
On in-person days, students in these grades will attend school from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
There will also still be an entirely remote learning option parents can select.
“Schools in this region are coming back into session. Kids are going back into school, they’re getting that in-person learning and they’re doing it safely. It’s time,” Columbia Superintendent Chris Grode said of the decision to resume in-person learning.
“It’s not just time. It’s looking at our local health department’s data, as well,” Columbia School Board President Scott Middelkamp added.
The Columbia School District said in July that all students would attend school in-person using a hybrid model before opting in August to start the year fully remote based on the recommendation of Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner.
Based on data from other local schools that have had students physically present and his department’s enhanced contact tracing capabilities, Wagner said he now recommends schools start taking small steps to bring students back.
“Our numbers are higher than when you started as far as positive cases, but, looking at what happened at other schools and seeing what’s happened in our parochial schools and Valmeyer, we feel now that we can do a good job of locking it down into a small population,” Wagner told the board.
Another key factor, Wagner said, was that it appears the rewards of in-person instruction outweigh the risks of students being in school.
“We’ve started seeing more and more of these issues with (students’) ability to learn, mental health issues and everything, and the risk is still there, but the reward is much greater to bring them back in-person,” he said.
Precautions will still be in place, including that masks will be mandatory, seating will be assigned at the lower grade levels and social distancing will be maintained as much as possible.
Grode said the district will check in with the health department incrementally to determine if it can increase in-person attendance.
Wagner said he will know about every two weeks how the virus is spreading in the schools, adding he is confident his department can control any outbreaks in younger students, but did not guarantee an outbreak would never get out of control at some point.
That is part of the reason for the hybrid model, as it makes for easier contact tracing as opposed to those students attending as much as their younger counterparts.
“I’m afraid if we do that, we might be back to all-remote very quickly,” Wagner said of having older students all back in school at once. “But if we go slow, we’ll probably be able to stop it very quickly and change our behavior or change the patterning of the schools where we lose it very quickly.”
Grode also pointed out the school and parents will need to have a plan for students to do remote learning when they are forced to quarantine because they contract COVID-19 or are in close contact with someone who does.
Parents must now decide if their child or children will be attending school in-person or entirely remotely.
Before making its decision on how to resume in-person instruction, the board also heard feedback from parents and grandparents, the majority of whom were in favor of returning to in-person learning as much as possible, and the Columbia Education Association, which outlined challenges teachers are facing.
Four individuals wrote or called in to the meeting to express support for continuing remote learning, while 16 called for students to return to school.
Those who advocated for remote learning often said it had been going well for them and pointed out the virus is even more widespread in the region now than it was in August.
“There has yet to be an example of where any school or workplace has been capable of stifling COVID ahead of a vaccine or taking measures to ensure 100 percent safety for all people in the spaces,” Mike Macik said. “Schools that have tried to return have inevitably had to quarantine students, thus making the environment inconsistent and confusing.”
Those in favor of opening schools frequently cited their children’s struggles with remote learning, including negative effects on their social wellbeing and mental and emotional health.
“My normally happy-go-lucky kid is in tears at least two to three times per week,” Jessica Wray shared. “Her grades are poor this year. She routinely cries at night and tells me ‘Mom, I’m a failure at e-learning.’”
Another common refrain was that the pandemic is not serious enough to warrant keeping school buildings closed.
“If McDonald’s is open and every other business is open, there’s no reason these kids can’t be in school five days a week,” Jeremy Lane said. “Open the schools up. This is ridiculous.”
Another parent, Chris Pulcher, cited Illinois Department of Public Health data to argue the situation in Columbia is not too bad. He also pointed to a July document from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that extolled the benefits of in-person learning.
“You guys are here to help the community not to destroy, and right now what you’re doing with the kids and schools is not being a positive role model,” Pulcher said.
For its part, the CEA said teachers want students back in classroom but educators have numerous concerns.
“Our concerns are that we have a safe return, and that we have enough time to prepare for a safe return,” fifth grade teacher and CEA President Becky Alexander said.
The union representatives explained safety concerns the teachers have, including ensuring schedules allow them to maintain proper distance, the district not having a full-time nurse in each building, a desire for more personal protective equipment beyond face coverings and a need for more extensive cleaning protocols.
The teachers also pointed out they will need more substitute teachers.
“Teachers are going to get sick,” Spanish teacher and CEA Second Vice President Carleigh Otwell said. “My kids might get sick, and we need people to be able to teach our classes.”
Wagner said there have been a few cases of teachers getting COVID-19 in other local schools so far.
“We’re not seeing a whole lot of issues with teachers,” he said.
The CEA also spent several minutes explaining what teachers are doing each day, showing how they are spending at least eight to nine hours a day preparing online lessons, responding to student emails and grading assignments.
That work will only increase in a hybrid model.
“It’s almost like I’m giving myself two jobs instead of one job,” said Carla Wantuck, a second grade teacher and CEA Vice President. “Some things are going to crisscross, but teachers are going to have two jobs.”
That is another reason for the hybrid schedule and shorter days, as teachers will have afternoons to work with remote learners.