DECATUR — With five kids, four of them in school, Jourdan Needham has plenty of concerns about what the next academic year will look like.
“Our biggest worry is the exposure,” said Needham, whose children are in fifth, third and first grade, as well as one in preschool, in Decatur. “It would be impossible to keep any age of kids to socially distance themselves, let alone our 4-year-old, who is not a fan of wearing a mask. We can practice, but it doesn’t make it any easier for such a young kid.”
The coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented circumstances in virtually all parts of daily life. Now it has upended back-to-school rituals and traditions, putting both parents and educators in situations unimaginable even six months ago.
Private and public schools shut down in mid-March as COVID-19 cases edged higher and Gov. J.B. Pritzker later issued a stay-at-home order. As numbers declined, it was announced schools would be allowed to pick how classes would be held in the fall.
The result is a patchwork of policies and rules still being developed — and very likely to change if cases spike. A total of 1,426 new confirmed cases of coronavirus disease were reported Saturday statewide.
Some districts, like Decatur, have plans to initially be completely remote. That announcement was made Friday, the same day the adjacent Mount Zion school district said it would offer in-person courses next month, giving students the option to learn remotely. Others statewide have adopted rotating schedules.
Parents, meantime, are stuck making a tough choice, weighing issues like whether a child can handle wearing a mask to how they’ll juggle jobs and family duties without a full-time return to school.
As a teacher and a parent, Erin Hargrove is facing the challenges of the new school year on both fronts. She has no fears about sending her children back to class in August.
Hargrove teaches at Robertson Charter School, and her children attend Holy Family School, which has released its fall plan — subject, as all schools' plans are, to changes advised by the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education.
“I know that my kids' school has done and will do everything to protect them. They have always had kids' best interests in mind,” she said.
Still, Hargrove is worried that if kids don’t go back, “bodies will become weaker and breakouts of colds and flus will run rampant this year.”
“I'm not denying this is a virus or that it's a concern, just how we are handling it,” she said.
Josie Bush, 15, is going into her sophomore year at Eisenhower High School. She said she never appreciated going to school until COVID happened — and isn't looking forward to more remote learning.
“I get frustrated," she said. "It wasn’t what I expected. I hope we get to go back to school.”
Her brother, Jack Bush, 12, a seventh-grader at Montessori Academy for Peace, said his concern is that remote learning will be extended.
“It’s going to be hard if we have to do it all year. It will be harder to ask questions when I don’t understand something," he said. "I like that one-on-one when I try to ask for help. I’m worried about it being an all-year thing and how it’ll affect my transition into high school."
A push to go back
Among those championing the return of all students to the classroom is President Donald Trump, whose press secretary said Thursday that “science should not stand in the way” of a full school reopening.
Vice President Mike Pence during an event on Friday said having children back in classrooms was a necessary step to seeing more parents returning to jobs.
“Opening up our schools again is the best thing for our kids,” Pence said. “It’s also the best thing for working families.”
Updated guidance issued Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged school leaders to work with local officials to make decisions about the fall, taking into account the virus’ rate of transmission in the area.
The Illinois State Board of Education’s 63-page playbook for navigating the reopening of schools, calls for the use of face coverings and suggests social distancing “as much as possible.” The guidelines also limit gatherings to fewer than 50 people and call for increased school cleaning and disinfection, as well as symptom screening and temperature checks for people entering school buildings.
Holy Family's Facebook page presents the plan as “strategies such as modifications for entering/exiting the building, lunch service, masks ‘recommended not mandatory’ in classrooms, expectations for sanitizing and cleaning, and distancing of students throughout the day.”
The Diocese of Springfield is the governing body for Catholic schools and their direction to schools could change if circumstances warrant.
John and Susan Reidy have three daughters, one in college, one in high school at St. Teresa and one at Our Lady of Lourdes. The youngest was not a fan of remote learning in the spring, John Reidy said. Lourdes is requiring masks outside of classrooms and has provided shields around desks for kids through fifth grade. Middle school students will wear masks when passing through hallways between classes and parents can't walk their child to class when they drop them off in the morning.
“Sue and I are confident, and Claire is ready to go. Also, we have no concerns about remote learning for Claire if it comes to that,” he said. “St. T is offering a hybrid in-person/remote system, too. We feel the same way for Anna, who will be in fifth grade but we would be much more reluctant to do remote learning for her. Those youngsters need a teacher. My feeling from talking to many parents in our schools is that the majority support in-person instruction and a return to school. We'll see, I guess.”
Many parents are unsure of what to do with their own children, especially when they don't yet know what their school district's plans are. Most Macon County districts have either released a plan or will shortly, and many are offering a hybrid of in-person and remote learning. In many districts, students will attend part-time in person and learn remotely on the other days. Another option is for parents to home-school.
“I can’t speak for others, but we are still working on making our decision,” said Jennifer Panganiban, whose children attend Maroa-Forsyth schools. “We are waiting for additional details from our district. We did find out we are being given a choice, which I think is fantastic. Our leadership has been incredibly open, has shared community data results, and is doing their best to listen and make plans that are safe for all.”
Some of the fears Aryn Hinton has are related to the kind of school her child attends. Her 6-year-old son is a student at Montessori Academy for Peace in Decatur, and the very character of Montessori education is hands-on, shared materials, and small groups working together.
“It looks like the state has recommended safety features, masks and cleaning, but my concern is what the learning environment will be like with all these new restrictions," she said. "It's not that I doubt efficacy of wearing masks, but my 6-year-old can't sit still. He would be willing to wear a mask. He wears a mask when we go out, but that's a long time to have that distraction for a 6-year-old.”
Less than a week after the Illinois High School Association announced the advancement to Phase 4 of the "Return to Play" guidelines, things have hit a snag.
Montessori is so hands-on that it's not possible to use the method properly in virtual learning, and that worries her as well. She works from home and was already doing that prior to COVID-19 shutdowns, so she can oversee her son's work as well as her preschool daughter's. Juggling their schoolwork with her own professional responsibilities will be a challenge, but she believes she and her husband, who is also working from home, can manage that. She is worried about parents who aren't that fortunate.
“I'm trying not to judge (virtual learning) based on the spring,” she said. “That was an emergency. Nobody expected that to happen and teachers did a phenomenal job of pivoting."
Said Hinton: "If we do go to virtual learning, it needs to be more structured to make it work.”
‘I know it’s not going to be easy’
The CDC's new guidance includes resources for elementary and secondary schools and decision-making tools for parents and caregivers. Many of the recommendations sound familiar, such as social distancing, cloth face coverings, proper cleaning and personal hygiene, and “cohorting,” in which a group of students sticks together throughout the day to minimize exposure. Schools are instructed to be prepared for COVID-19 cases and exposure, and have systems such as contact tracing in place for when that happens.
Ashley Burnette's 9-year-old son is a student in Mount Zion schools and he has a compromised immune system. He knows that and is cooperative about wearing his mask when the family is in public, so Burnette is not as concerned about that or his ability to be cautious.
“He didn't have any illnesses last year,” she said. “I hope the kids return to in-person teaching. I feel like it will help their mental state overall. They need socialization more than anything.”
Decatur school officials on Friday announced plans for the fall 2020 semester.
Needham, the parent of five, said it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
“Even if the kids would wear the masks properly, all day, and use distance, what about lunch and recess time? This is a completely different situation for everyone, and would honestly put too much responsibility on teachers,” she said.
Said Needham: “I have one kid who worries about catching or carrying the virus and bringing it home to his 2-year-old sister, one kid who wants to be around her friends, one kid who doesn’t have a preference how she does school, and my 4-year-old who hates masks and doesn’t want to wear it all day, and all of these concerns show their level of understanding.”
Burnette wants student safety to take priority, she said.
“I just hope that they make this easy,” Burnette said. “I know it's not going to be easy, and someone is always going to be upset. I just hope they're thinking about kids and their health and make it an easy transition for them.”
Bush, the Decatur student, said it will be a new set of challenges and expectations. She's especially disappointed because she made the varsity cheerleading team right when COVID started and high school sports were canceled.
“Out of anything, I hope we get sports back," she said. "I can deal with online learning if we got sports.”
The Herald & Review's Garrett Karsten, the Associated Press and Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.
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Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter
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