DOWNERS GROVE – As Community High School District 99 Superintendent Hank Thiele continues to weigh options for reopening schools in the fall, he believes guidelines released by the Illinois State Board of Education June 23 are underwhelming and overly vague.
"They haven't given us a clear set of guidelines," Thiele said. "They have given us philosophies and ideals. The 68-page document could have been a one-page memo. The document itself, I feel, is unduly nebulous for superintendents. The only thing that is definitive in there is that everybody should be wearing a mask. After that they don't give us anything in a priority order."
Schools in Illinois are being encouraged to "maximize" in-person learning this fall when the 2020-21 school year begins, while requiring that everyone in buildings wear face coverings.
Thiele said that superintendents from across DuPage County have been working since mid-May to project what they might do without state guidance. That runs the spectrum from full remote learning to everybody back in school for in-person learning, to a hybrid plan with rotations of students in school.
In District 99, a broad cross section of staff is part of a task force to build a plan that Thiele said will be released in the next 3 to 4 weeks.
Talking to other superintendents, Thiele said that the pivotal point from which every school has to start is scheduling. Much of that has to do with the size of the student body, the physical layout of the school and the school's ability to be remote or not, he said.
"Every district is different," Thiele said. "Some schools are very small, 300 kids or less, schools like mine, students and staff put them over 3,000. How many kids do you bring back at a time, are you doing a meal service and if so how, how can you maintain hygiene? Those kinds of variables are the deciding ones."
Thiele was frustrated that beyond the mask mandate, the ISBE did not give districts an order of priorities from which to work, which leaves school districts in different spots across the state.
Ultimately, Thiele said, that sets things up to pit community versus community, and for dividing lines to be created within a community.
"We are used to having things in a priority order and this document does not do it for us," Thiele said. "Somebody is going to have to decide is the No. 1 priority to have everybody back at the same time every day? If I have everybody back for a full day, is social distancing possible? A next door neighbor might say we're in a pandemic, the No. 1 priority is remote learning.
"There will be a lot of conflicting priorities that will be very difficult to sort out," he said. "Since nobody knows what the right answer is, it will be hard for superintendents to say they're definitely making the right answer."
Thiele said that he is hoping that ISBE or the Illinois Department of Public Health, after getting feedback from superintendents, could provide additional guidance, or that districts could work collaboratively.
Face coverings are required by everyone in all public and nonpublic schools “unless they are younger than 2 years of age; have trouble breathing; or are unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the cover without assistance," according to the ISBE report.
Thiele, asked about push back to the mask requirement, said that is one of the "top things on our list to work on."
"It causes a whole set of cascading issues," he said. "What do you do if a kid refuses to wear a mask? What do you do if they can't? Do you require kids to wear IDs because it's hard to identify them if they're wearing a mask? There is a whole set of issues."
Thiele said that at least the ISBE gave definitive guidance regarding school buses.
Buses can carry up to 50 individuals, and all individuals must wear face coverings. Students “must undergo symptom and temperature checks, which may include self-certification, before boarding a bus."
"No more than two kids in a seat," Thiele said. "I don't know how many parents are comfortable with that."
Lunch rooms, on the other hand, present a whole series of questions. Thiele said his district's lunch rooms are built to hold 800 people at one time.
"If I started lunch as soon as kids walked in the door, we don't have time in the day to bring groups of 50 through the lunch room," Thiele said. "If you talk about getting food to classrooms, every one of those decisions is cascading. Say we bring lunches to class rooms, how do you make sure they get to the correct class room? What about kids with allergies? Are you getting the correct type of meals based on dietary needs? How do you make sure proper hygiene is in place? Every decision you make is going to have so many questions that come out of it."
It's a host of what ifs, and Thiele said that "we have six weeks to redesign a school system that has been built for over 200 years."
"We'll put together the best possible plan we can and learn to adapt. So many things that you can't predict," Thiele said. "It's going to be I'm making the best guess and plan with what I know going forward."