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Champaign Unit 4 Plans To Bring Middle, High Schoolers Back To Classrooms In January

Champaign Unit 4 Board of Education President Amy Armstrong presides over a meeting on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020.

CHAMPAIGN – During a Board of Education meeting Monday night, Champaign Unit 4 Schools officials discussed bringing middle and high school students back into classrooms beginning in January.

The plan as presented by Unit 4 administrators includes two schedules. Under either scenario, all students would learn virtually on Mondays, and in the mornings for the remaining four days of the week. In the afternoons Tuesday through Friday, a maximum of 300 students will be allowed to come to each middle and high school campus to receive in-person, subject-specific support from teachers.

Administrators explained that this model means more engagement between students and teachers, regardless of whether they’re learning remotely or partially in-person.

Other districts have adopted what’s commonly referred to as “A/B” hybrid models, where groups of students are assigned certain days to come into school, and different days in which they learn remotely. Unit 4 Superintendent Susan Zola said such a model would mean that three-quarters of students would have to watch lessons presented with minimal interaction either with their peers or the teacher. 

Unit 4 assistant superintendent for achievement and student services, Laura Taylor, said the model proposed by Unit 4 administrators maximizes student interaction.

“Both schedules that are proposed have teachers spending more time interacting with kids whether it’s in-person or distance,” Taylor said. “And I think that’s something to be proud of what our teams have done.”

She acknowledged that it is unusual. 

“It’s unique, we’re going to try to pull this off, and kids can sign up. And no, not everybody can come everyday, but ideally they go when they see their schedule to get support from teachers in their content,” Taylor said. 

Unit 4 sent a presentation to high school parents earlier this week explaining that decision in more depth.

Taylor said when the district settles on its plan for the second semester, they’ll finalize details for what in-person instruction may look like during the afternoons. The Unit 4 Board of Education granted Zola the power to make decisions regarding the reopening of school campuses for the current school year. 

Joe Williams, principal of Central High School, said only about half of the high school’s rooms can accommodate 12 desks with six feet of distance between them, with the other half able to accommodate less. He said teachers and administrators realized that the common A/B hybrid model would not be in the best interest of students. 

“We knew it just wasn’t probably worth all the effort it would take, and we wouldn’t get really much bang, if any bang, and maybe no bang, and less bang for our work if we just stuck with that model that a lot of high schools have chosen to do this semester,” Williams said. He said he has heard from administrators at other districts that have adopted the A/B hybrid model that they are struggling to keep students engaged. 

Under the current proposal, Williams said students would learn at the same pace virtually. 

“The afternoon then will be for support for all levels of students, we’ll do some inviting… but we’ll also be open to any student who wants to come in,” he said.

Edison Middle School Principal Angie Schoonover said they’ll figure out what afternoon in-person instruction will encompass, noting that in addition to academic support, “I think at the middle school level in particular, we can be creative with providing more enrichment activities for kids that they just haven’t had the opportunity to maybe have right now in this setting.”

Middle and high school staff have already invited some students back to school for extra support. Late last month, about 35 percent of elementary school students in the district began returning to some in-person instruction.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the state. Unit 4 has so far reported three cases of COVID-19 among staff, and five cases among students.

Lee Gaines is a reporter for Illinois Public Media.

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines

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