Update: Sycamore District 427 announces fall re-entry plan; board talks mask discipline, cleaning

SYCAMORE – Sycamore District 427 administrators announced a three-part approach to returning to learning in the fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which will offer options for in-person and remote education.

Administrators stressed the plan is tentative, as they expect the Illinois State Board of Education to release further back-to-school guidance. A survey will also be sent to district families to gather feedback, and the plan will go again before the board for a final vote at their next meeting.

“The plan in my opinion reflects the best effort to provide the best educational opportunity for students in the safest environment possible,” said new Superintendent Steve Wilder, who came on board in July.

While the school board seemed receptive to the plan in its first draft, many asked for more information before a final vote.

How it will work

Sycamore District 427 families will have two options: to send their children to school twice per week in person with the other days remote, or to enroll their children in virtual-only learning for the first nine weeks of the school year (which begins Aug. 19). There is also an ancillary plan to help identify and provide social and emotional support for students and staff experiencing ongoing trauma due to the pandemic.

Students participating in the hybrid approach will be split in a group A and group B (with siblings in the same group for easier weekly schedules, administrators said). Group A will attend in-person Mondays and Wednesdays, while Group B will go Tuesdays and Thursdays, with Fridays alternating among the two groups.

Students in the district’s early childhood program will attend in-person half days Monday through Thursdays, and students in “self-contained” classrooms who require special education will attend Monday through Friday “as much as possible,” said Kristine Webster, director of learning and teaching.

Cleaning protocols will be undertaken also, and unlike the spring e-learning model, grades and attendance will be taken and monitored strictly.

The virtual-only option will be for families who prefer to keep their children at home due to health or other issues, Webster said. They will enroll in remote-only learning for the first nine weeks of the school year, with the option to transition to the hybrid approach after those nine weeks or to continue for an additional nine weeks.

Virtual-learning families will also be provided an internet hotspot to ensure they have good connections.

Curriculum and a more detailed plan for how the virtual-only learning would work for nine weeks is still be formulated, Webster said, addressing calls by multiple school board members who asked that those details be made available sooner rather than later so parents can make an informed decision on whether to keep their children home.

Face masks and symptom reporting

Face masks will be required for all students and personnel in buildings, and those who attend in-person will have a 1:30 p.m. dismissal.

Several board members asked about how to enforce face masks, especially among young children. Wilder said the district will take disciplinary action if necessary, though it’s not his first choice.

“My desire is we avoid disciplining students as much as possible for that process,” Wilder said. “Legally we’re able to do that. But maybe they end up with calls home but we’re also legally able to require that they take the remote learning option.”

Mark Ekstrom, director of building and grounds, said younger students will likely need to take breaks outside.

“That’s the biggest challenge,” Ekstrom said. “They’re going to have to go outside for mask breaks, get outside, spread out, take those masks off, do some activities outside, read in the grass.”

Wilder said the district, like all other schools in DeKalb County, has been working closely with the DeKalb County Health Department to create protocol for symptom monitoring and contact tracing plans if a student or staff person in the building contracts the virus.

“Testing students every day can be a logistical nightmare,” Wilder said, adding that families will be on a self-reporting honor system. “At the beginning of the school year, they’ll monitor symptoms for temperature, cough, fever and they’ll report as they go on. Teachers are used to looking for symptoms like that so we’ll also need to be alert to certain situations where students may not show symptoms at the beginning of the day but develop them throughout the day.”

Cleaning and disinfecting will be done throughout the day, with teachers cleaning their classroom surfaces in between classes and cleaning staff in other high-contact places.

“We will need some help from the teachers, especially at the high school level,” Ekstrom said. “And then cleaning staff-wise, if we start having some of our guys go down, that will be our challenge, having enough staff to keep some areas going.”

Webster said the district is also working on a third plan, what it will look like to transition students back fully to in-person learning (or likewise, more remote options if the region has to moved backwards in Gov. JB Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan).

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