DOWNERS GROVE – Students in Downers Grove Grade School District 58 will return to school Sept. 1 with grades 1 through 6 in modified in-person instruction five days a week while seventh and eighth graders will experience a blend of in-person and remote instruction.

The plan, which also includes a remote option for all grades, was approved by the school board in a 5-2 vote after more than six hours of discussion at the July 30 board meeting. Preschool and kindergarten will have a half-day of school on site.

"After the last two weeks of hearing everything, my faith is with this plan to allow the child and teacher to get to know one another. If we have to pivot back so be it," board member Jill Samonte said. "That is where my conscience is. I will sleep not well, but I will know that I vote how I needed to vote."

The board voted on the five-day instructional model based on guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), which strongly encouraged onsite learning.

Families have until noon Aug. 10 to make their choice between the two options, with the commitment for the first trimester.

"Throughout this process, our very top priority has remained the health and safety of our staff and families," Superintendent Kevin Russell said in an email to district families. "We are committed to a safe and healthy start to the school year with layers of safeguards in place for on-site instruction, taken from guidance from ISBE and the Illinois and DuPage County health departments."

Board members Emily Hanus and Kirat Doshi voted against the plan. Hanus, while praising district officials' work on the plan, said she didn't think it significantly reduced the health and safety concerns "with the simple fact that there are still hundreds of students and staff together in a building at any given time."

"I lean toward a more cautious approach that puts the utmost weight and priority on maximizing the ability to mitigate those health and safety risks above anything else," Hanus said. "From a 50,000-foot viewpoint, the plan looks good, but I have serious concerns with the feasibility of meeting the social distancing and masking requirements in the reality of a school filled with children."

The start of the school year has been delayed until September to prepare teachers for the significant change in teaching, with the state providing school districts five extra days for training and preparation.

Under the phased-in plan for in-person instruction, the first two weeks of student attendance will be shortened with no lunch to acclimate students to new routines and teach them new safety procedures. Beginning Sept. 10, students in grades 1 through 8 will attend school in-person for approximately four hours, with no lunch at school and one hour of offsite instruction.

"This shortened day allows students breaks from the strict protocol, structured day and mask wearing and gives teachers more time for planning curriculum," Russell wrote in the email. "The later start will allow teachers to supervise students with the new safety and distance protocols as they arrive at our buildings."

The district is targeting Oct. 26 as the date to transition to full in-person instruction at the elementary schools, which will consist of five hours with lunch. District officials hope to explore the feasibility of lunch at the middle schools, with a potential increase of onsite instruction (including lunch) at the beginning of the second trimester.

"I don't want anyone to discount for a second the importance of that rapport between a student and a teacher," said board vice president Greg Harris, who voted for the plan. "I don't believe that can be built by an iPad effectively. I think we need to have that relationship built and steady by Day 1. You need to have expectations, you need to know the rhythms of the classroom, the rules and all those things."

Under the remote learning option, students will receive both synchronous or live learning from district teachers for 2.5 hours a day. The other 2.5 hours of their instructional day will be asynchronous. In the middle school blended plan, students will attend school every other day from 8:30 a.m. (7:50 a.m. early bird) until 12:40 p.m.

The district will also hold a YouTube Live event outlining the scenarios and health/safety safeguards for onsite instruction at 5 p.m. August 5. Additional online sessions will be held for families of students in specialized programs at 6 p.m. Aug. 4 and noon Aug. 5.

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