Update: parents call for more in-person learning as Genoa-Kingston D-424 re-entry plan unveiled

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GENOA - Genoa-Kingston superintendent Brent O'Daniell revealed the district's Return to Learn plan at a school board meeting Monday evening, with as many as 230 people viewing online in addition to an in-person audience of about 100 at the peak of the three-hour meeting.

According to the plan, students will alternate every other day based on last names, with one group going Mondays and Wednesdays and the other going Tuesdays and Thursdays. The groups will alternate Fridays. School dismissal time will be at 1 p.m. and face masks will be required for all students who chose the in-person option.

The district will also offer a remote learning option, which O'Daniell said he expects about 20 to 25% of students to use.

Reaction from parents at the meeting was generally negative as the public comments went on for more than an hour. Laurie Nesler, a former school board member who has two children in the district, pointed to what she called the low COVID-19 numbers in the county - over 730 cases and 23 deaths - as a reason to have in-person schooling for five days. She said she knew "zero risk" is not an option.

"Our kids need to get back to the classroom full time," she said. "It's not a want. It's a need."

The board didn't vote on the plan, and instead will vote next week. O'Daniell said the school will work on exploring the possibility of elementary students going four to five days a week, but said there are a lot of logistics in the way of that.

District teacher Benjamin Owen spoke later, stressing that the health and safety of students and staff needs to be the priority of the district.

Most of the blowback from speakers at the meeting stemmed from the district electing not to go five days a week especially at the elementary level. One speaker mentioned elementary students going more than two days a week in Rockford, St. Charles and Burlington Central. Other concerns were about the early dismissal time.

However, all three of those districts also offer amended remote or in-person learning options. In St. Charles, elementary students will be five days but will be shortened to 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily, and kindergartners will only go for half days. Middle and high school will be a mix of in-person and online. In Burlington Central, students will go twice per week based on last name, though an option for a four-day week is being discussed but not yet finalized. Elementary students in the Rockford Public Schools will have the option of doing remote learning or in-person five days per week, while middle and high school students will attend in-person twice weekly.

When a board member brought up how he thought elementary students should go five days, O'Daniell said there was no way to properly socially distance students within CDC guidelines without alternating school days.

O'Daniell said nothing is in stone yet until final participation numbers come in from parents and the school board has their own discussion, but he said the plan is for elementary students who do remote learning to have scheduled one-on-one time with their teachers, while middle and high schoolers will participate in live instruction through Google Meets.

"That's our goal but we don't know the details yet," O'Daniell said. "I would like to think there will be established times (elementary) students would be in direct contact with a teacher every day. They won't be sitting in front of a teacher from 8 until 1, but maybe it's a scenario where they get direct instruction for 20 or 30 minutes, then come back 40 minutes later for another 20 or 30 minutes. We're not sure but it's what the team talked about during the discussion period."

O'Daniell said the plan was devised by a panel of teachers, administrators and parents that met a handful of times since the end of last school year. He said the district has plans in place for Restore Illinois Phases 1 through 5. The plan revealed Monday was for the current state, Phase 4.

O'Daniell said the district has been seeking massive amounts of input from the community. He estimated the district has sent between eight and 10 surveys home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For middle and high school students, O'Daniell said the specificity of instruction makes one-on-one meetings for every student more unwieldy than at the grade school level. But he said the technology is in place to have middle and high schoolers participate in classes live and remotely.

"Our intent is there will be a live Google Meet while the teacher is providing instruction," O'Daniell said. "There'll be video of the teacher and the smartboard and those kids will be learning right along."

O'Daniell said the district has enough cameras and computers to make the remote learning feasible.

"One piece we need to pay attention to is making sure those remote learners are getting enough time with the teacher as in-person learners are," O'Daniell said. "Teachers have to program themselves to be aware of the kids online."

At the elementary and middle school levels, students will stay in the same room with the same group of students all day, while the high school students will change classes. In-person attendees that must self-quarantine will be able to participate in remote learning during the quarantine period if they are able to do so.

Traditional grading will be in effect at all levels and attendance will be daily for both in-person and remote learners, a big difference from the spring.

At the board meeting, board member Kristen Brynteson pointed out the remote learning in the fall will look very different then it did in the spring, while board member Mary Hintche said that is important to keep in mind face-to-face education will look very different this year with social distancing and masks.

Breakfasts will be available for students to eat at their desk, with every student receiving a snack. Lunches will be grab and go at the end of the day.

O'Daniell also said the district was working with the park district on getting child care at all schools from 1 p.m. until 6 p.m. at little to no cost to parents. That is still being hammered out, he said.

One speaker asked how much people are willing to risk to open up school more.

"Are we willing to allow eve one teacher or student to die," the speaker said. "I know there's a lot of hardship. But this is a short moment in time. How are we going to look back at this and the actions we took."