Columbia Assistant Superintendent of Schools Courtney Castelli told the Columbia School Board at its meeting Thursday that the school district plans to start the school year using a hybrid model for attendance.
Students will attend school in-person two days a week and remotely three days a week.
“We determined a hybrid model would probably be the best scenario and the best way to start the school year,” Castelli said.
Parents will also be able to choose to have their children attend school entirely remotely.
The school board is set to have a special meeting next Wednesday to discuss specifics of the plan, which are still being determined.
Castelli discussed the broad basics of the plan Thursday after holding a meeting earlier that day with administrators, department directors and teachers.
“We had roughly 22 people in this room for about five hours today going over all the data, what are the surveys telling us, what do the guidelines say and making decisions,” Castelli noted.
A key factor in determining to take the hybrid approach was the staff, who Castelli said have “very high” anxiety levels. She noted some teachers, traditionally, see 150 children a day, and while they want to be with students, they have concerns about their own safety.
“We want to provide the best possible education and the safest environment for our students,” Castelli explained. “But our service providers, we have to consider them too, and that’s our teachers and our staff. If they get sick and they’re out, that’s two weeks of them being out, and we’re going to ask a (substitute teacher) to come into an environment where someone was sick. We’re already hard-pressed for getting subs in a good year.”
The Illinois Federation of Teachers is among the groups pushing for school to be held entirely remotely this fall.
With all that in mind, Columbia’s plan is to divide students into two groups based on name, while ensuring all children from one family are in the same group.
One group will attend in-person Monday and Tuesday, then work remotely Wednesday and Thursday. The other group will work remotely Monday and Tuesday and attend in-person Wednesday and Thursday. Everyone will attend remotely on Friday.
Those who work remotely will still have time with the teacher and be able to work together with classmates who attend in-person.
The district has purchased enough Chromebooks for each student to have one – though each child will need to buy a district-approved case for the computer.
When students attend school in-person there will be staggered times for departure, so students will not have a full day in school.
“The reason for that is our teachers are going to be planning for in-person instruction, and they’re going to have to change things,” Castelli said. “Instruction for next year is not best practice. How they know to teach kids and all the professional development we have given them says what’s best is not in a row, straight ahead and not collaborating. It’s going to be a whole new ballgame, especially for the little ones.”
Eagleview Elementary’s hours will be 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Parkview Elementary’s will be 7:50 a.m. to 1:20 p.m., Columbia Middle School’s will be 7:55 a.m. to 12:35 p.m. and Columbia High School’s will be 7:45 a.m. to 12:25 p.m.
Those may change depending on enrollment and bus needs.
The shortened days also provide time for teachers to work virtually in the afternoon with students who attended remotely those days if needed and upload all materials for that day so students can access them on Chromebooks.
Having school remotely on Friday gives teachers time to plan lessons and the district time to examine what Castelli called the “COVID gap” to see how students are handling the hybrid learning system and make adjustments.
When parents and students register for school, they will choose between the district’s hybrid model and the fully remote learning option.
That initial choice will last for nine weeks, at which point any student can switch options. Every nine weeks, the district will review the plan and change it if needed. At that time, students can also change how they attend.
Registration began Monday and ends Aug. 3. School begins Aug. 20.
The district will reevaluate its plans before the spring semester begins.
“Obviously, the goal is to do more in-person than not,” Castelli said.
The district viewed reopening options on a continuum, with one end of that being opening with no restrictions and school being back to normal.
“We’re not in a regular situation, so I think we would be remiss if we just acted like that was the case,” Castelli said. “We cannot provide a safe environment just by going forward as is. Our physical spaces in the classroom do not allow for even the minimum social distancing in many cases.”
She said that was the case because the Illinois State Board of Education guidelines say six feet of distance is recommended, but districts should do their best. Six feet is impossible in many of those classrooms, and the best the school could do would be the normal distance between students.
On the other end of the continuum is having school entirely remotely, similar to how last school year ended.
“The safest solution is remote,” Castelli said. “We recognize that is an ideal.”
That option, however, comes with drawbacks like it being nearly impossible to do lab work, teach reading or work with special education students remotely.
So, the district decided to begin the hybrid option, which sits in between those two poles.
“No matter the decision we make, we will be upsetting someone,” Castelli acknowledged.
Although that is the district’s plan, the ISBE instructed districts to create plans for hybrid, totally remote and completely in-person with safety guidelines learning models so it can be ready to shift depending on the health situation and government orders.
Columbia Superintendent Chris Grode, who is the only one who must approve the plan, also noted the district will likely experience all three of those environments at various points in the year.
Additionally, he said all plans must also allow for social distancing – which is not possible in Columbia with full attendance – mandatory mask wearing, daily disinfecting and flexibility.