DOWNERS GROVE – Students in Community High School District 99 will return to school for two mornings and two afternoons a week in a hybrid learning schedule when the second semester starts Jan. 5 – if conditions allow.
That sticking point was a topic of vigorous debate Dec. 14 at a four-hour school board meeting, where the plan was presented.
Most students at Downers Grove North and Downers Grove South high schools have been in fully remote learning since Nov. 2, and all students have been in remote learning since Nov. 30. The district in October had returned students to school for two half-days a week in a modified hybrid schedule.
The new schedule doubles that time in school. In another change for the second semester, the district is adjusting how it determines when it is safe to return to school in applying Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended indicators to district-specific metrics.
Students will be back in January should COVID-19 test positivity in the District 99 community be below 9%, or if the number of new cases per 100,000 is fewer than 125 based on a 14-day rolling average.
District officials are recommending that the metric is based off the five ZIP codes that represent 96% of the student body, with the schedule for the week determined every Monday based on the prior week’s metrics.
“The argument is picking the community sample that best reflects us,” Superintendent Hank Thiele said. “This is a metric that is both reflective of nearly all of our students and a great number of staff.”
The rolling average positivity rate for those ZIP codes was 9.46% as of Dec. 13, which would not allow for a return to a hybrid model but would allow for small group programs such as T99 and driver’s education. District officials are optimistic the numbers are trending in the right direction toward a return to hybrid learning.
In addition, the district will have to ensure that there are no virus outbreaks at the school, defined as five or more cases that are linked to a common location during a 14-day period, and that the district is able to follow up on students and staff illnesses and close contacts in a 24-hour period with adequate staff available.
“We are trying a very aggressive program after the break to get our kids back to school every day every week,” Thiele said. “We need to make sure the metrics are safe to try this aggressive approach. What we have provided is a pathway back based on science and experience.”
Board Vice President Michael Davenport, though, voiced concern about having a “hard line drawn in the sand” at determining when students would return to school or remain in remote learning.
“I’d rather see a discretionary zone, for instance where you make a call one way or the other,” Davenport said. “I hate to be in a situation where we keep bouncing back and forth between an 8.9% and 9.2% positivity rate.
“These numbers are here for a reason. I like them as guideposts, but I’d like to see some discretion used before we automatically, we cross this threshold, we’re going fully remote.”
Board member Rick Pavinato proposed calling emergency meetings in the future before a decision is made to shut school down again.
Board member Daniel Nicholas didn’t think the plan was aggressive enough.
“I’m not a big fan of the 9% number. You can’t tell me that kids are safe at 8.99% but not at 9.1%,” Nicholas said. “The only number that matters to me is outbreaks in schools. If we have no outbreaks in school and we do the mitigation steps we have done in school, the kids should be in school. As long as we have no outbreaks, kids should be in school. I like the plan. I just don’t think it goes far enough.”
Thiele said he believes the district has a responsibility to keep people healthy “in our school and our community.” He added the plan addresses what the community has asked for in terms of transparency and consistency.
District officials earlier in the meeting presented findings of a survey with responses from 989 students, 1,951 families, 250 teachers and 105 staff members.
“There needs to be a metric,” Thiele said. “What we have heard from the community is they are tired of moving goalposts, of week to week, they don’t know what to expect. What we have put together is a plan based on the experience of the first semester, based on the recommendations of the CDC and based on hundreds of conversations with health professionals. It’s something that has a solid, predictable metric. We need a number that people can look at.”
Under the new hybrid schedule, students are divided into two groups alphabetically. Students in Group A will be in school Tuesday and Wednesday mornings from 7 a.m. until 10:50 a.m. and Thursday and Friday afternoons from 12:30 p.m. until 3:20 p.m. Students in Group B will be in school Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons from 12:30 p.m. until 3:20 p.m. and Thursday and Friday mornings from 7 a.m. until 10:50 a.m.
Every Monday will continue to be a remote-only, late-start day.
There will be no more “remote-only” weeks planned.
The schedule will remain in effect through March 26.
There also is a remote-only option.
Students will be enrolled for in-person or remote-only based on their most recent selection. If they wish to change their selection, they must complete and return a form by 5 p.m. Dec. 18. Students enrolling in fully-remote learning are committed to that choice through spring break.
Thiele emphasized the district has in no way been challenged by its teachers union or support staff union to not return to school.
“We are adequately staffed. We are able to run school. The only thing preventing us from returning is our rate of illness in our community due to community metrics,” Thiele said. “We want to get our kids back to school as soon as possible.”
Allyson Passarelli, a member of the Downers Grove Education Association executive board and a math teacher at Downers Grove North, spoke at the meeting in support of Thiele and the board’s decision to use the CDC metrics.
“We feel that the use of these numbers allows students, families and members to have clear guidelines,” Passarelli said. “We applaud the time and effort that Dr. Thiele and the board has put into making these difficult decisions.”