Huntley School District 158 to bring back elementary students for full in-person learning

Huntley High School will hold its graduation in person this spring, principal says

Students head to their classes during the first day back to hybrid learning in Huntley Community School District 158, incorporating a split between remote and in-person learning, on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021, at Leggee Elementary School in Huntley.

Kindergarten through fifth grade students at Huntley School District 158 will be able to attend school five days per week for full in-person learning beginning March 15, Superintendent Scott Rowe said Thursday.

This move has been a part of the district’s “Return to Learn” plan since the start of the year and Rowe said they feel ready to move forward given that teachers will receive their second dose of the vaccine this week, the county’s COVID-19 metrics have improved and the district has worked out the necessary logistics.

“This year has been incredibly trying on our community from staff to students to, of course, our families,” Rowe said in an interview Monday. “The time is right, and we want to capitalize on every single day that we we can have our students who choose to be with us in person for a full day as we can.”

For a full five days each week, students will be able to eat a socially distant lunch at school and play together at recess, Rowe said. They can take their masks off while outside for recess as long as they are not in close proximity with one another, according to his presentation.

Also announced Thursday evening was that Huntley High School will hold its graduation in person this spring with three ceremonies of 240 to 250 students each, Principal Marcus Belin said. These ceremonies will take place outside at the Huntley High School football stadium at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on May 22.

Each student will be allowed only four guests rather than the usual seven, but the ceremonies will be livestreamed through the high school’s YouTube page, Belin said. Families will be seated together in a socially distant manner.

Students and families will be able to choose which ceremony they would like to attend so that students who may want to end their high school experience together may do so, Belin said. A website with more information on graduation will go live March 19.

Julianna Ghanayem, 18, throws her arms up in celebration of receiving her Huntley High School diploma on Monday in Huntley. Principal Marcus Belin and other faculty members drove to graduating seniors' houses to personally deliver diplomas with a socially distant ceremony with "Pomp and Circumstance" bellowing from the bus.

As the district’s elementary school students go back to school full-time later this month, moving to full days from half ones will require some classrooms to be moved to larger spaces, Rowe said. All students except some in the dual language program will retain the same teachers.

Remote learners at the elementary level will not see any changes in their teachers or class offerings, but the time that they take classes like music or art may change slightly as those classes are relocated to different spaces, Rowe said.

Pre-kindergarten students will begin attending classes four days per week March 15 and preschool students in self-contained special education classrooms will begin attending school for a full, five-day week, according to the presentation.

In public comments sent to the board, a few parents said they felt the district was rushing into bringing students back for full-time in-person learning, with one stating they should wait to increase in-person time until after spring break when travel could result in higher rates of infection.

The district watched closely for elevated infection rates after the Thanksgiving and Christmas break which, ultimately, never came, Rowe said. This led them to conclude that – with strong mitigation measures in place – spring break would not pose much of a threat either, he said.

Another parent pointed out that it will take weeks for the vaccine’s full protections to take effect after second doses are received by teachers this week.

While this is true, a growing level of immunity is present before that point, Rowe said. Parents who feel uncomfortable with the timeline can also decide to have their students learn remotely, he said.

District 158 students in grades six through 12 also saw changes to their schedules this week as Wednesdays are no longer a remote learning day for all students, according to a message sent out to families Friday. Instead, the students will alternate having an extra in-person learning day on Wednesdays each week.

Also this week, the district welcomed back secondary students who were identified, based on a set rubric of criteria, as needing additional assistance for full-time, in-person learning, according to Rowe’s presentation. They are not yet able to bring all students in grades six through 12 back for full-time in-person learning while maintaining 6 feet of distance between students at all times.

The district’s largest hurdle to bringing students back for full in-person learning was – and remains – the logistics of safely transporting students to and from school, Rowe said.

An already limited supply of bus drivers across the region has been exacerbated by COVID-19 social distancing rules which restrict the maximum capacity of buses to 50 students instead of the typical 75 or 88 students, depending on the bus, he said.

A survey was sent out to see how many parents could get their kids to school without sending them on the bus, Rowe said. With those numbers – plus a retention program that offers bus drivers a bonus if they come back to work with the district or stay on through the transition period – the district was able to rework their bus routes to offer transportation to all families who need it, he said.

Families who initially opted to be in remote learning for the rest of the school year but now wish to switch to in-person learning may not be able to be immediately added to the bussing schedule if transportation is needed, he said. Principals are doing their best to accommodate these requests on a limited basis.