After over three hours of discussion, the Waterloo School Board unanimously voted at a special meeting Friday to begin the upcoming school year with almost entirely remote learning.
“All students pre-K-12th grade will start the school year with remote instruction,” the school district wrote in a letter to parents. “In the interest of keeping our students, staff and community safe by not contributing to community spread of COVID-19, this is how we intend to begin the year with the hope of gradually transitioning to safe in-person learning. This plan will continuously evolve and adjust to the needs of our students while adhering to the guidelines and recommendations provided by the (Illinois Department of Public Health), (Illinois State Board of Education) and the Monroe County Health Department.”
The blended plan also allows for specific, small groups of students to come to school in-person for certain activities and classes, though that may not start immediately.
The school year will begin Aug. 19 for students.
“The Board of Education did what we always do: we made the best possible decision with the most current, relevant information available to us,” Waterloo School Board President John Caupert said, emphasizing the board unanimously OK’d the blended remote learning plan.
Waterloo Superintendent Brian Charron said he envisions the plan being a “living, breathing document” that is not so detailed that small changes at the state or local level can make it moot.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing for us to err on the side of the health and safety of our students, our staff and our community by coming up with a remote learning plan that brings in some kids and demonstrates our efforts to adhere to guidelines,” Charron said, adding he believes the IDPH may loosen restrictions after a few weeks if schools do not have coronavirus flare-ups.
“It’s overwhelming logistics following the guidelines,” Charron also said at the meeting. “If we start out with remote learning, we get to practice some of that.”
He also said he would like teachers to review how school went each week and make adjustments as needed.
The district’s educators recommended the board vote to start the school year with remote learning.
Part of the reason for that, Waterloo High School Principal Lori Costello said, is the teachers have spent the summer preparing to make remote learning better than last year.
“All the people who think there hasn’t been anything done, that isn’t accurate,” Rogers Elementary School Principal Brian Smith said in response to comments from the over 350 people who watched Friday’s meeting via Zoom. “We have been planning.”
According to the letter sent to parents, recorded instruction and videoconferencing will be key components of this year’s remote curriculum. Additionally, it will be enhanced by in-person lessons, tutoring and additional educational activities.
“Education, while still a primary thought, is absolutely a secondary thought to the health, safety and lives of 2,800 kids, hundreds of staff and a community of 10,000,” Caupert said. “It is an impossible task to please everybody and make everybody happy.”
Caupert also said he was more worried about adults bringing the virus to the school than children.
Like the educators, Charron said the district’s attorney advised starting remotely and its insurance company said it would not cover any lawsuits stemming from individuals suing the district if it did not follow state guidelines.
From a public health perspective, Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner advocated at the meeting for taking a cautious approach.
“I’m not too sure that the Waterloo School District wants to be or should be the guinea pig for what would happen (if students attend mainly in-person),” he said, noting experts know little about how the virus works in children. “I’m all in favor of bringing them back, but I cannot recommend that you bring them back. We don’t know. There’s no information. We’re just guessing (how it will affect children).”
Given the input from those individuals, Charron said that made him want to “gamble” or serve as a “test case” even less.
Another factor in Charron’s mind was how poorly he anticipated students following safety precautions, given on how well they have complied at summer activities and how adults follow them every day.
“The kids are just as bad as us adults at not following rules,” he said.
That is a crucial aspect because Charron said safety is of paramount concern.
“We have a fear of loss of life that may come back to us,” he said on behalf of the district’s educators. “We could be a community spreader.”
“This weighs heavy on me,” Charron later added, emotion rising in his voice. “This weighs very heavy on me. People’s lives depend on me.”
He added that a student-athlete in the district recently tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in multiple others being placed in quarantine.
According to Wagner, the level of harm the virus spreading in a school could cause is unknown.
He said it appears COVID-19 is more likely to sicken high school students and older students than those ages 10 and younger.
But the science on that is not settled.
“We’re not seeing it in kids, but we’re not testing the kids,” Wagner noted. “We don’t know if they are asymptomatic.”
Researchers have also been unable to determine how well children, particularly asymptomatic ones, can transmit the virus to others like teachers or family members.
Wagner also acknowledged that social distancing is limited in classrooms. A recent survey of Waterloo parents showed 83 percent of people wanted to send their children to school, which would make social distancing impossible.
That survey, coupled with the ever-changing pandemic, has led the district to shift its stance in recent weeks.
It had originally planned to have more students in-person, something the school board pushed for.
“You’re (the board) wanting something more aggressive that doesn’t follow the IDPH recommendations for keeping people safe. And that’s where I said ‘This has to be a board issue,’” Charron said late in Friday’s marathon meeting in reference to informal conversations with board members. “If you’re going to ask me to violate guidelines against the advice of our attorney, against the advice of our insurance company and now against the advice of our local health department, then you need to vote for that plan that does that. If you don’t want to vote for a plan that violates IDPH guidelines, I can sign off on that. It would be nice to have the board’s support. I know that I don’t have all of that.”
Caupert later clarified to the Republic-Times that the board simply wanted to explore an option that would have students attend in-person with an option available to all parents to have their children use remote learning only.
The district had also considered delaying the start of the school year to allow for more in-person schooling, but Charron said that idea was scrapped as the virus has surged.
“I’m hoping, over time, this gets better,” he said. “I’m hoping on it, but I’m not betting on it.”