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Champaign Unit 4 Schools To Prioritize In-Person Teaching For The Most Vulnerable Students This Fall

Champaign Unit 4 Schools Superintendent Susan Zola speaks during a press conference at the district's administrative building on Windsor Road on Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

CHAMPAIGN – The Champaign Unit 4 School District is changing their reopening plans for this fall. At a meeting this week, the district’s Board of Education asked school administrators to target special education, emergent bilingual learners and other vulnerable students for in-person instruction — with everyone else beginning the school year virtually.

The district released a tentative plan late last week that called for four hours of in-person instruction per day for elementary students, with one hour completed remotely. The initial plan called for students in grades six through 12 to alternate in-person attendance days with virtual learning based on last name, with all students attending virtually on Wednesdays. Everyone would be required to wear masks while inside school buildings. The district also included a virtual academy option for families who wanted to keep their students home.

Unit 4 Superintendent Susan Zola says the guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education indicates that students with special needs, those learning English and children under the age of 13 were most harmed when schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic this spring. ISBE requires students receive five hours of instruction per day, but districts have flexibility to determine how to deliver that instruction. 

During a board meeting Monday night, member Elizabeth Sotiropoulos suggested that those students should be targeted for in-person instruction while the rest of the district’s student population attends school through the district’s virtual academy.

“I think that’s the most just way we go about that. I also think it’s most responsible to our teachers and staff who would be working in the buildings. We eliminate a lot of problems this way,” Sotiropoulos said. She added that the district could save money on personal protective equipment costs if most students were to learn remotely. 

Most of the board agreed with this strategy. The results of a survey conducted by the district in June indicated that of the 43% of Unit 4 families that responded, the majority — nearly 85% — wanted their children to attend school in-person this fall. But parents also indicated that they had concerns about health safety, as well as learning losses due to the closure of schools this spring. 

Unit 4 Board President Amy Armstrong addressed the survey results during a press conference Tuesday morning.

“Looking at that data it’s encouraging that parents wanted their children back in the educational space, but in reality it’s the virus that’s driving decisions at this point,” Armstrong said. 

She said the district can gradually reintroduce in-person learning by first targeting those who need it the most. 

“If we start out slow and triage from the most high risk, marginalized, those who were harmed by the loss of educational opportunity in the spring, we can slow roll out by really targeting those that we feel like are missing in the conversation or who might not have been prioritized through the survey,” Armstrong said. 

John Lyday, a spokesperson for the district, said in an interview with Illinois Newsroom that students receiving bilingual education would be included in a review of pupils who may be prioritized for in-person instruction.

During Tuesday’s press conference, Zola said she understands that remote learning will pose challenges for families that rely on the district to provide both an education and childcare.

“If space becomes available and we find some families reaching out to say this is a real hardship, we certainly can revisit the number of students we can serve in-person,” she said. 

Zola said that will also depend on how COVID-19 continues to impact the community, and whether infection rates decrease or increase. 

She said about 2,700 children at the elementary level would likely qualify for in-person instruction under the targeted categories, but that it’s not yet known how many older children would also qualify for face-to-face instruction. The district has a total enrollment of about 10,000.

Zola said students whose families lack access to WiFi at home would also be considered for in-person instruction. 

“If they’re not interested in coming in, and it’s a matter of providing a hotspot —  we have done that for some of our families last spring,” Zola said. She said funding from the federal CARES Act would be used to pay for those devices.

When asked about testing staff and students for COVID-19, Zola said the district had been approached by Martin Burke, a chemistry professor at the University of Illinois who helped develop that institution’s saliva-based COVID-19 test. 

“We’re excited that we might be able to partner with the university on a very quick and efficient test that would give us more data than we would normally have around teacher and staff (and) student safety if we’re actually able to administer that kind of a test,” she said. 

Zola also said that some teachers have reached out asking to teach virtually only this fall, while others have offered to serve in any capacity they can. She said those who have requested accommodations have been referred to the district’s human resources office.

When asked how the district will respond when students or staff contract COVID-19, Zola said she expects the Illinois Department of Public Health to issue guidance for school districts on the matter.

She said the current focus is to start the school year, which is slated to begin Aug. 20, with as many students as possible learning online. 

“That’s going to help us reduce and space out the students that are in-person,” Zola said. If it becomes necessary, she said the district will also be prepared to move all students online “and try not to interrupt the learning opportunities wherever possible.”

Urbana District 116 also recently released their initial plan for a return to school this fall. That district, which serves about 4,500 students, says they plan to offer a mix of in-person and online instruction, with students in grades Kindergarten through 12 attending school two days per week and learning remotely for the remainder of the week. 

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines

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