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Decatur schools to use 'virtual learning' for at least first quarter

Decatur schools to use 'virtual learning' for at least first quarter

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DECATUR – All Decatur Public Schools students will learn remotely for at least the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year, it was announced Friday. 

The district released its plan at 7 a.m. Friday. Student instruction will begin on Monday, Aug. 17, a few days later than originally planned.

Schools have been out since March because of COVID-19. 

“This is certainly not the start to the 2020 school year that we would have hoped for, but we know that it’s ultimately the best decision we can make for our students, staff, and all our DPS families to prioritize their health and safety,” said Paul Fregeau, superintendent of Decatur Public Schools, in a statement. “From teachers and principals to parents and students, I want to thank everyone involved in the planning process. It took a lot of time, effort, difficult conversations, and many changes along the way, but I think starting the year with virtual learning only is the best decision possible for our community.”

A team that included representatives of the seven unions representing employees, as well as administrators and principals, worked on the plan since June. The team also sought input and feedback from parents and students. With no chance to prepare last spring when COVID-19 shut down schools and most businesses, Fregeau said, teachers had to wing it. 

"We've learned the things that went well and the opportunities to improve and our planning is centered on those things and how to mitigate things that didn't go so well," he said. "We had pockets of teachers who really were able to utilize online platforms to engage kids on a regular basis, and we want to replicate those techniques and approaches."

However, there were kids who had limited or no engagement in learning during the spring shutdown, and kids with special needs or who struggled for other reasons. 

"We need to figure out a way to do some in-person appointments for proper screening and assessment, to meet those individual needs of students that we now know did not get those things met in a proper fashion," he said. "It's part of planning: how do we support kids who are seeking help with things they're struggling with, how do we reach out and engage those kids who are doing little or no engagement through the platform of virtual learning?" Those issues will be part of the district's preparation before student learning begins on Aug. 17, he added. 

“The planning team really tried to take all stakeholders’ input into account as we designed our return to learn plan,” said Chrissy Petitt, president of the Decatur Education Association, the union which represents DPS teachers. “The collaboration within the planning team was extremely valuable, even when the conversations were difficult. We listened to our families, our employees, and our students. We look forward to working with our students and families in order to provide the best instruction possible.”

In-person appointments and assistance will be available for special education students, English learners, and students who specifically request in-person assistance from their teachers. 

Aug. 12, 13, and 14 will be designated as Remote Learning Planning Days for teachers and staff to ensure they’re ready for students to begin virtual learning, and the district will offer assistance on these days for families who need to get internet access in their homes or iPads updated so that students are prepared for virtual learning. Families who require assistance with internet access or wi-fi should contact their child's school.


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Decatur students kept the iPads they received last spring through the summer months, except for high school seniors, who returned theirs when they picked up their diplomas, said Denise Swarthout, communications director for the district. When devices need repair, the district's information technology department repairs them and can usually offer a loaner device while the repair is underway. Students going from a K-8 building or middle school to high school in August will return their iPad to their school building and be issued a new one associated with their high school.

School breakfast and lunch is still unresolved, Swarthout said. The guidelines that were relaxed during the first shutdowns in the spring, which allowed “grab and go” meals to be distributed to students, have not been renewed for the fall.

“Breakfast and lunch is still being sorted out,” she said. “As it stands currently, federal guidelines that gave wide allowances for grab and go expires in August, and during the school year, (school meals) has to be associated down to the student level. It's tracked by the student it's given to. What does that look like for families as we go 100 percent virtual? We're working with Aramark to meet federal guidelines, which are more stringent than the allowances made in the spring and summer. There's been no updated guidance from (the state board of education) or the federal government.”

At the moment, with no updated guidelines, the answer is “we don't know,” she said.

Families can register returning students by logging into Skyward Family Access through the DPS website at dps61.org. Families who need assistance with the online registration portal should reach out directly to their student’s school. Kindergarteners and students who are new to DPS can register in-person on July 27 and 28 from 10:30 a.m. To 7 p.m. at the school the student will attend. For Franklin School, new student registration will be hosted at Student Services due to construction at the school building.

Fregeau said it's absolutely critical that parents register students and make sure the district has the correct contact information for the family to make this all work. 

The district is planning webinars for parents in early August to help them prepare to assist their children's learning at home. The dates and times will be posted on the district's Facebook page and on the website, www.dps61.org/returntolearn.

"There'll be tutorials, coaching on how to use devices and some advice on utilization of technology and learning and reading and doing math," Fregeau said. "We did some of this in the spring, videos and other things for parents to get help supporting their kids. This will be augmented and include more details."

A virtual question and answer session will be 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 29. Register at www.dps61.org/julyparentmeeting and the session will also be live-streamed on the district's Facebook page.

Millikin University student Sherine Tumushemeze, from the African nation of Burundi, has weathered COVID-19 on campus. When coronavirus numbers began escalating months ago, the school switched to remote learning and took other measures as the U.S restricted travel overseas and the state issued a stay-at-home order.

Even though students will be learning virtually from home, they will still be required to check in with teachers for daily attendance. Additionally, in a shift from the Spring 2020 remote learning, grading for the 2020-21 school year returns to normal expectations. Students will receive grades for their classwork during virtual learning. The Illinois State Board of Education released a guide to school districts on Thursday. 

"We're working on (a schedule of when to do their work)," Fregeau said. "They expect five hours of instruction and at least two and a half hours of synchronous learning, with live interaction with teachers. What that looks like and how formatted it is, that's what we're talking about with the teacher group and training, then we'll let the parents and families know."

At the Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, board member Kendall Briscoe asked Todd Covault, chief operational officer, how state funding would be calculated under the pandemic. That funding used to be figured on average daily attendance, but with the state's shift to evidence-based funding, Covault said, it's now calculated based on enrollment. Remote learning will not affect funding.

The board also approved the purchase of 280 Verizon Wireless Jetpacks to distribute to district families who lack a high-speed internet connection to assist with remote learning. A survey of district parents indicated that 3 percent of families had no access to high-speed internet.

Families in need of child care can register for Innovation Learning, which will be held at the Children's Museum of Illinois and provide full-day services for Decatur schools students and will be extended to DPS staff with children who attend other school districts. The location is still being determined, but interested families can register now for just a $5 enrollment fee at innovationlearning.com. Other community organizations may offer full-day services.

Information about the fall plans, answers to questions, and resources will be located at dps61.org/returntolearn.

Districts across the state are announcing plans for handling student instruction amid COVID. Classes were canceled in mid-March as cases increased and Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order.

The Illinois State Board of Education released a 63-page document detailing the state health department's recommended practices for safely reopening schools.

Last week, Chicago Public Schools released a draft plan for fall instruction — a hybrid learning model that would assign most students to "pods" that would return to campus for two consecutive days of in-person learning on a rotating basis, pending public health guidance. On Wednesdays, in between pod rotations, schools would get deep cleaning.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently stated that if precautions are taken to ensure the health and safety of children and teachers, it “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

But later, the National Education Association, which represents more than 3 million union members, warned that with the pandemic causing budget shortfalls at school districts nationwide, more funding is needed to reopen schools safely this fall.

The Associated Press and Chicago Tribune contributed to this report. 


8 things announced in Decatur schools plan

Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter

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