SYCAMORE – Sycamore District 427 students will now begin their school year remotely, on Aug. 31 after the school board voted Tuesday to switch gears amid what Superintendent Steve Wilder called new obstacles in the planned hybrid model.
Wilder said new guidelines released by the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education in recent days rendered the district's formerly approved plan to begin the year with limited in-person classes nearly impossible.
"We had a model, but the numbers didn't come out to make that model work," Wilder said.
The board passed the plan by consensus. Board members James Chyllo, Eric Jones and Jeff Jacobson all pushed hard for the elementary schools to open with some in-person. Board President Jim Dombeck made the argument at first as well, but eventually decided full remote was the only option.
"It's not ideal but I think it's the only course open to us," Dombeck said.
The plan is to go remote for the first nine weeks then revisit the situation to see if in-person is possible to some degree. The D-427 decision is the second in the county to make the switch to fully remote, following DeKalb District 428.
The meeting was still going on at 11 p.m. with a financial report. The final vote on the spring, the adoption of the calendar, didn't take place until the 3 and a half hour mark. It passed, 6-1, with Kris Wrenn voting against.
Wrenn had called the fact the board was still debating its learning plan this late in the year "embarrassing," and said her no vote was because the start date doesn't leave Sycamore parents with enough time to prepare when they were under the impression they'd be sending their children to school in person.
Wilder presented two big hurdles.
At the middle school and high school levels, Wilder said there were some unforeseen hiccups in scheduling with the amount of students that elected to go remote, which ended up being between 25 and 30%, a larger percentage that originally anticipated.
The result would be needing to hire 11 more teachers in order to offer everything under a hybrid schedule that would be offered normally – something the district has been promising.
The cost would be $1.02 million, which Wilder called cost-prohibitive.
He said he didn't want to have to cut classes.
"I hate to start losing opportunities for students," Wilder said. "We had a number of them miss out in the spring and the one thing I would like to do is offer as many opportunities we can under the limitations we are under."
Wilder said the administration considered a hybrid plan where the elementary schools still did some in-person learning while the higher levels were fully remote.
But he pointed to an IDPH guideline requiring an isolation room separate from the nurses' office that must have its own bathroom, to isolate students or staff who may present COVID-19-like symptoms while at school. He said that set up was not possible.
Board member Jeff Jacobson asked if IDPH guidelines were enforced by law. Wilder said while he wasn't sure, the bigger issue was that the school could be open to lawsuits if IDPH guidelines weren't followed, and liability insurance isn't covering COVID-19 cases for schools.
Before deciding to go remote, the board heard detailed presentations on what remote learning will look like at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Classes at all three levels will feature a mix of live classes via video and pre-recorded lessons.
After Jones and Chyllo both gave impassioned defenses on why elementary school students shouldn't start the year remote, Wilder said they could try to pursue that course at the board's direction if they were willing to assume the risk.
"I'm not willing to risk a life for nine weeks," said Julenne Davey. "Again it's still about safety, and I'm still with remote."
Steve Nelson said he had heard that restrictions are actually going to grow tighter, plus was worried about possible liability.