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Despite challenges, McHenry County school officials happy with way school year has started

Most of the county’s schools spent much of the 2020-21 academic year with virtual classes

Between students forced to quarantine after coming into close contact with a COVID-19 case and missing class and school districts struggling to fill positions, McHenry County schools continue to face hurdles this year.

Despite the challenges, education officials across McHenry County are deeming this year’s start to school a success and rejoicing over having the vast majority of students return for in-person learning after the last two academic years were bollixed by COVID-19.

The consensus among school officials in McHenry County school systems is the obstacles this year are far less cumbersome than they were for last year’s start of school, when most McHenry County students were attending class through computers in their homes.

“When you step back and look at the big picture, it’s going extremely well,” Woodstock School District 200 Superintendent Mike Moan said in a statement through spokesman Kevin Lyons. “Things we took for granted before, as simple as teaching students in person again, I don’t think we’ll take for granted again. Students are flourishing. They’re involved in activities and sports again, they’re socializing. It’s healthy, and they’ve done a magnificent job adjusting as has our staff.”

Huntley School District 158 Associate Superintendent Jessica Lombard said seeing students excited about school again has been their biggest victory.

“The overall excitement by everyone to get students back into school in more of that learning environment that they’re used to is a positive,” Lombard said. “Kids were just really happy to be back. It makes those challenges we’re facing worth it.”

Simply getting back to in-person learning is a big step forward toward bringing students back up to speed, District 200 said.

“We feel that the most effective methods for remediation and acceleration happen when our students are with us at school,” Moan said. “This gives our teachers the best opportunity to connect with and differentiate the support for each student.”

Officials across school districts said they are noticing student deficiencies in some areas, including social and emotional capacities as well as academic achievement, since the remote learning.

In Johnsburg School District 12, student deficits in reading and math have been identified, Superintendent Dan Johnson said, adding that the “magnitude of those deficits vary by student.”

McHenry Elementary School District 15 Superintendent Josh Reitz said teachers are still trying to gauge how far behind students who did not excel with remote learning have fallen.

“Research led us to anticipate that gaps would appear in our students due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Reitz said. “We are still compiling as much data as we can to accurately quantify where our students are, but we believe there is some unfinished learning that our teachers are intentionally targeting in their daily instruction.”

He said the district also is working to secure newly available grant funding for social-emotional learning and resources to improve and monitor student mental health.

At Crystal Lake Central High School, freshmen have been connected with upperclass mentors, Principal Eric Ernd said, and school counselors and social workers talk to all the students about stress management and healthy coping skills.

Comparing grade data from how kids did at their mid-term and the nine-week mark, it’s clear that kids are doing way better than last year, Ernd said.

“Obviously, there are a small number of students that are adjusting, but I think they’re adjusting well. .... I feel we’ve supported them, with our teaching staff, with our counselors and social workers, too,” Ernd said.

Some students did fine during the remote learning period of the school year, while other students struggled, Cary-Grove High School Principal Neil Lesinski said.

To address this, teachers are making themselves more available than ever during the school day at Cary-Grove, Lesinski said, and students are taking advantage of the school’s Math and Literacy Center. New to the school this year is the “collaboration room,” an open space where students can go during their off periods to get assistance from their peers and teachers.

The point of this is so kids don’t just feel like they’re treading water but that they’re actually progressing, Lesinski said.

At Cary-Grove, small group sessions have students meeting with social workers and counselors so teens have a safe space to share their thoughts and feelings.

“We’re trying to … adjust appropriately for the trauma that everybody has experienced throughout the pandemic and how that presents itself differently in each one of us,” Lesinski said. “We’ve all experienced some tough things over the last couple of years. We’re all trying to adapt together support each other as just one big school community.”

For area schools, a lot of this year has been about reteaching certain skills, such as how to walk down the hallway or how to get to the bus route, after more than a year of remote learning.

Before the school year started, Lundahl Middle School in Crystal Lake let kids come in the building before the school year started and practice walking their schedule and using their locker combinations.

“All these different things seem small to people, but they’re huge in a building of 800 kids,” Lundahl Principal Angie Compere said .

Because kids have been used to being at home and having supplies in reach, they may also need reminders on bringing what they need to class or charging their Chromebooks overnight so they’re ready in the morning, Compere said.

With some kids not having been in the school for a year and a half, school officials are taking the idea of “building community and ramp[ing] it up on steroids,” said Matt Grubbs, principal of Crystal Lake’s Coventry Elementary School.

To help kids participate academically, staff is making sure the school’s culture is a caring one, Grubbs said. This means not presenting a lesson when a child needs something emotionally in the moment, or if students slip up, having a discussion about what the expectations are and how they can do better next time, he said.

Fallout from the pandemic also includes a shortage of staff – an issue for years that was exacerbated by COVID-19.

In addition to experiencing dilemmas with hiring bus drivers and substitute teachers, Moan said District 200 has needs for classroom associates and bilingual teachers that were difficult to fill before the pandemic and have since gotten harder.

“With a third of our students in dual language, we have a greater need for that specialty than most school districts,” Moan said.

Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 is seeing a for need paraprofessionals, substitutes, lunch and playground supervisors, and bus drivers, meaning teachers and administrators have had to step up and fill those roles as needed.

“Our teachers, … they’re wearing all hats right now” Compere said. “It’s just all hands on deck. We’re all we’re all trying to figure it out and support one another.”

Districts have struggled with a staff shortage for years, though Compere said it did get somewhat worse during the pandemic.

As principal, Grubbs said he’s stepped into the classroom if a substitute wasn’t available. Sometimes, he, other administrators and faculty will act as lunchroom or playground supervisors as well.

Before COVID-19, schools might have combined classes together for the day if a substitute wasn’t available, but because of social distancing, this is not an option, he said.

“We’ve always been covering classes, but it just seems to be more,” Grubbs said.

One challenge Lombard said District 158 officials didn’t quite expect this year: TikTok challenges encouraging inappropriate behavior.

“[It’s one] of those discipline things you didn’t anticipate that maybe would’ve happened in a non-COVID year,” she said.

Challenges with COVID-19 policies remain, too.

Marengo-Union Elementary District 165 Superintendent Lea Damisch said parents sometimes direct their anger at her and the school board over the governor’s mask mandates. At last week’s school board meeting, two parents demanded the district disregard the state’s executive orders and shared several false theories about masks and vaccines.

While the voices of the parents who oppose any sort of COVID-19 restrictions are loud, Damisch said the district is doing its best and has been successful at keeping kids safe.

“We were in the spotlight last year. People were waiting for us to fail. And we never failed because we did things right,” Damisch said.

District 165 was in-person almost every day last year and saw no spread of the virus among students, she said. So far, it has seen the same this year.

Damisch said she understands where parents who want to abandon the state’s mitigations are coming from, but said not complying would cause major issues for the district’s insurance and it’s a risk they can’t take.

While battles still remain over pandemic mitigations, McHenry County superintendents overall said they are pleased with how the school year has gone.

“It’s really been a great start to the school year. We’ve had our challenges, but our focus even with these masks on our face has been to engage our kids in learning,” Damisch said.

Cassie Buchman

Cassie Buchman

I cover Crystal Lake, Algonquin, Cary, Fox River Grove, Prairie Grove and Oakwood Hills for the Northwest Herald.

Sam Lounsberry

Sam Lounsberry

Sam Lounsberry covers local government, business, K-12 education and all other aspects of life in McHenry County, in particular in the communities of Woodstock, McHenry, Richmond, Spring Grove, Wonder Lake and Johnsburg.

Ben Szalinski

Ben Szalinski

Ben reports on local news in Harvard, Marengo, Huntley and Lake in the Hills along with the McHenry County Board. He graduated from the University of Illinois Springfield Public Affairs Reporting program in 2021. Ben is originally from Mundelein and enjoys outdoor activities and spending time with friends and family.