Sycamore district gears up for Nov. 4 return to classrooms

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SYCAMORE – As Sycamore begins shifting to in-person learning starting Nov. 4, North Grove principal Ryan Janisch outlined to the District 427 board on Tuesday his preparations for the hybrid learning environment to come.

Janisch said his school is getting ready for the students' physical return and making improvements to remote learning.

"I'm proud to say the last couple weeks, we've been focusing on program enhancements for kids," Janisch said. "The teachers have done an amazing job developing the remote learning plans."

Janisch spoke to the board about the enhancements as well as the preparation for the students' return in the school's parallel plan, which begins Nov. 4. Students will be split into two groups, with one group in person and one group online, alternating each day. The remote students will be observing the classes live via video platforms.

Board member Eric Jones thanked Janisch and pointed to what he called the critical role elementary schools are going to play in teaching good hygiene and other social distancing practices.

"Obviously there's been feedback about the numbers starting to pick up in Region 1, and we're starting to see some of that in DeKalb, but I don't want it to be lost that opening the schools isn't necessarily going to make that worse," Jones said. "It is going to allow us an opportunity to be hyperfocused and make sure all of the youth in Sycamore is getting that attention on a near-daily basis to teach them the skills to help us keeping this from getting much worse."

Janisch said about 80% of North Grove students will be going hybrid, with the others opting to remain in a full-time remote platform.

Janisch said there's been physical work done to the classrooms and buildings as a whole, such as putting up bulletin boards, placing social distancing markers and reminders around and rearranging the technology in classrooms.

"One of the things that has been interesting over the last couple weeks is all the preparation that goes into the start of the school year really went on pause," Janisch said. "Those tasks didn't get finished because everybody went in different directions with remote learning. So it's like we're starting the school year again, but in October."

One of the improvements to remote learning Janisch highlighted is an engagement referral process to determine when a student is behind in attendance, coursework and engagement. He said district staff may address issues by conducting outside visits, providing a Wi-Fi hot spot for families or more education on how to use Google classroom.

He also said they've started a program to help teachers feel less isolated after being alone in their classes all day, including wellness walks, yoga and pumpkin decorating.

As the Nov. 4 start date approaches, Superintendent Steve Wilder spoke about various COVID-19 metrics district staff are using to assess safety, including cases per 100,000 people in the county and positivity rates.

While Wilder's data showed positivity rates locally up to Oct. 4 consistently below 8%, the positivity rate in the county has been over the threshold four of the past five days for which data is available.

The third metric the district uses which tracks rise in youth cases showed a decrease according to Wilder's data, which allows for in-person learning per district guidelines.

He said this shows why the final decision to move between remote and other modes of learning rests with him and input from the health department, staff, the board and others.

"If we were making a decision just based off the health data only, it puts us in three different categories and is a really good example of how difficult it would be to make a decision solely based on the health data," Wilder said. "I think it needs to be an important piece of that as we move forward."