St. Charles School Dist. 303 students back in school after taking pause from in-person learning

Elementary school students continue to do in-person learning, while middle and high school students will do a hybrid of in-person and remote learning

St. Charles Community Unit School District 303 students went back to their classrooms last week after being on winter break and taking a pause from in-person learning because of a surge late last year of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations across Kane County.

The Kane County Health Department had asked all Kane County school districts to move to fully remote learning until at least Dec. 4 and that athletics and other school activities be suspended, as well. District 303 school board members decided on an option for students to participate in fully remote instruction from Nov. 30 through Dec. 18. Students were on winter break after the pause.

Elementary school students are doing in-person learning, while middle and high school students have a hybrid of in-person and remote learning.

District 303′s assistant superintendent for learning and teaching and chief academic officer Denise Herrmann said there are several reasons why the district’s elementary school students are the only group of students doing in-person learning five days a week.

“A major part of the reason is our ability to meet the social-distancing requirements and the space capacity at each of the buildings,” Herrmann said. “At the elementary schools, we were able to have all the students who wanted to [attend in-person learning] come, which ended up being about 70% of the families requesting in-person learning.”

Under current guidelines from the Illinois State Board of Education and Illinois Department of Public Health, no more than 50 people can be gathered in any space at any time, including cafeterias, auditoriums and gyms. In addition, all individuals must maintain a physical distance of 6 feet throughout the campus, and student desks must be placed at least 6 feet apart.

To accommodate elementary school students, the district turned open spaces into instructional classrooms and hired additional teachers.

Herrmann said she knows the importance of elementary school students receiving in-person instruction.

“The group for whom in-person instruction is the most critical is our younger learners,” Herrmann said. “So we put all of our resources to that level because we actually have the space to make it a reality.”

She noted the district is “very tight” on space at the middle and high school levels.

“For example, if there’s an eight-period day at the high school level, a teacher only teaches in it five periods and then someone else teaches in it the other periods,” Herrmann said. “It was impossible to bring all students back on campus. We wouldn’t be able to have them socially distanced in the hallways and in the classrooms. We did the next best thing, which was devising a schedule that allowed half of them to come onto the campus at a time for in-person instruction.”

Some District 303 parents have voiced their desires to return to in-person learning five days a week and have voiced concerns about the impact of remote learning on the mental health of students.

“I feel there are a lot of hurting children, there’s a lot of hurting families in our district that need more,” St. Charles East High School parent Danielle Penman said to school board members in the fall. “There are educational gaps that are not being met. There are social, emotional and mental issues that are not being addressed and met. Children need support that can’t come from home. They rely on their teachers, their counselors, their educational coaches.”

Herrmann said the school district’s first priority is to keep students safe.

“We’re doing everything we can to have health and safety first and in-person instruction second in terms of our priorities,” she said.

The pandemic has created staffing problems.

“That’s one of the reasons we took that pause between Thanksgiving and winter break because student absences and teacher absences were increasing due to quarantining,” Herrmann said. “It was becoming more and more difficult to have enough adults on campus to keep all the instruction moving forward.”

The school district is carrying the lessons learned from last semester into this semester. As Herrmann noted, the school district has learned “a tremendous amount about how to deliver virtual instruction and the teachers continue to refine their practice.”

At the high school level, District 303 teachers are delivering instructions to students in their classrooms at the same time students are learning remotely. Herrmann said it has been a challenge.

“It’s very difficult for teachers to keep the students in front of them engaged, the students online engaged and to try and be as responsive as they want to be,” Herrmann said. “That’s the No. 1 goal of a teacher, to make sure that they are connected with each student during that instructional period. But they’re making the most of it. We invested in technology to try and make it more effective. So if I was going to do a group project, I might have two students who are in my class being partnered with two students who are working from home and they can all work together.”

Starting Jan. 19, St. Charles East and North students will have additional in-person learning opportunities. Students will be able to engage in extended learning time, which includes two 40-minute sessions each day Tuesday through Friday.

The sessions will run from 1:10 to 1:50 p.m. and 1:50 to 2:30 p.m. Although students can continue to access this time with their teachers virtually, students also will have the opportunity to attend this time in person via a pass system.

“And teachers will identify kids who need it,” Herrmann said. “It’s our job to make sure all students are learning at high levels. So we see it as being targeted, meaning teachers inviting students, as well as students saying they want more access to equipment or teacher time.”

Herrmann took note of the lessons the district has learned during the pandemic. After the pandemic is over, she believes the district will use what it learned moving forward.

“From adversity comes innovation,” Herrmann said. “That’s what you do when you’re a continuous improvement district. I definitely think some of the ideas of parents and students having the option to take some or all of their instruction in a more flexible way, I think we want to continue to offer that.”

Eric Schelkopf

Eric Schelkopf covers St. Charles and writes entertainment stories for the Kane County Chronicle.