DANVILLE — “Ridiculous,” “impossible” and “very frustrating” were just some of the words Danville District 118 school board members used to describe the state’s expectations for reopening schools during a special meeting Monday night.
At the meeting, board members approved switching Northeast Elementary Magnet School — which follows a year-round balanced calendar and typically starts their school year in July — to a traditional calendar for the upcoming 2020-2021 school year only.
Northeast will open at the same time as District 118’s other schools; however, it is still uncertain when the schools will reopen for the new school year. The first day of school at the district’s traditional-calendar schools is scheduled for Aug. 13, but that could change.
One hundred parents attended a June 26 Zoom meeting with Superintendent Alicia Geddis during which she shared some of the highlights of the 60-page guidance the Illinois State Board of Education released June 23.
“Once the parents were informed, they were extremely supportive and asked what they could do to help,” she told the school board. “They support joining the traditional calendar and starting school with the other schools, whenever that might be.”
Geddis said schools cannot reopen without personal protection equipment (PPE), which the district is required to provide.
The board approved purchasing a 45 school-day supply of masks for all students and staff for a total cost of $107,950 for 63,000 pediatric masks and 180,000 adult-size masks.
Buildings and Grounds Director Skip Truex told the board he had since found a slightly less expensive price for the masks.
“The cost fluctuates daily,” he said. “We will be negotiating this every time. We want to purchase 45-days’ of masks at the best possible price.”
Board member Shannon Schroeder asked, “What happens after 45 days?”
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Truex said. “The 45-day supply will be adequate to get us going. We’re not even clear right now when school is going to start.”
“Since the state guidance changes daily, heaven forbid we go backwards and do remote learning. Is there a provision to return them (masks)? Is there a way to get that expense back?” Schroeder asked.
“The state’s intention is that when we go back to school, it’s in-person,” Geddis said, adding, “We were able to order the masks. They didn’t say they could deliver them.”
Some of the state guidelines for reopening schools include: requiring face masks for all students and staff, restricting the number of people in a space to no more than 50, checking temperatures for students and staff before entering a school bus and before entering a school building, and needing many monitors to ensure social distancing on school buses and in hallways, restrooms and other common areas.
“We will be social distancing, taking temperatures and taking children to the bathroom to wash their hands,” Geddis said. “We need monitors for the bathrooms because we have to wipe down the handles.”
One big concern Geddis has is how the district will safely transport its 6,000 students, most of who ride school buses.
“I don’t know how we’re going to social distance 6 feet apart on an 18-foot bus,” she said.
Students will eat lunch in individual classrooms and not in a common-area cafeteria. The classrooms will have to be cleaned after the students eat lunch, and the students will have to be taken to the bathroom to wash their hands.
Each school building will have to establish an isolation room for students and staff who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms because school nurses are supposed to continue to care for children with other illnesses, Geddis said.
If an employee or student tests positive for COVID-19, everyone in the student’s classroom and everyone who has come within 6 feet of the student or employee will have to be quarantined for 14 days, she said.
Another concern is having enough staff – teachers, monitors and day care workers – when the schools reopen. Although the state is requiring districts to provide day care for its staff, employees can choose not to use it. Some staff might not return in-person during the fall semester because of child care issues or health issues and they will be able to use FMLA (Family Leave Act).
The state also has sent mixed messages to the school districts about when to reopen. The state wanted districts to consider starting school early so they could finish earlier in the fall (before a second wave of COVID-19), but PPE is needed first in order to reopen.
“First they tell us to start early and try to complete the first term by November,” Geddis said. “Then they tell us to start late so we can get masks from them, which will be around Sept. 1.”
Some other challenges include the state requiring districts to provide students with technology and Internet access. Geddis said the district has placed orders for computers and masks using CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) funding.
Some board members said they were disgusted with the state’s mandates.
“I would just say it’s ridiculous and impossible,” Board member Darlene Halloran said. “Those regulations aren’t in the best interest of the students.”
“This is very frustrating. It’s a hard situation,” Schroeder said. “I think the asset we have here is our teachers. They are the most creative bunch I know.
“The teachers and the administrators are going to do the very best for our students,” she said. “These students are going to be loved are cared for, and I know the teachers are going to provide that.”