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Champaign Unit 4 Superintendent: District Is Meeting Technology, Food Needs Of Families

Champaign Unit 4 Schools Superintendent Susan Zola hosted a virtual press conference Monday, April 20, 2020.

Champaign Unit 4 Schools Superintendent Susan Zola says the district is on track to meet the digital needs of its families as e-learning continues through the end of the school year. In general, she has a positive outlook on the remainder of the school year, as well as what might be in store for the district this fall. 

Zola hosted a virtual press conference Monday afternoon and answered questions on a range of topics, including e-learning, Chromebooks, the district’s meal distribution plan, graduation for high school seniors, and what the next school year may look like. 

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

How is e-learning going so far?

I’ve gotten pretty positive feedback. But I know that some people are just struggling to balance being a parent, trying to do their job from home, monitor their students’ learning. And for a lot of educators, there’s some learning on the adult end as well, right. So not all teachers were ready to go to remote learning, which is fine. Some of them have really grown their technology skills over the last several weeks. We’ve had a lot of district support around helping individuals learn how to use Zoom and Google Classroom. Some teachers were very comfortable with the transition. So it’s like anything else; it’s a continuum.

I think parents are really appreciative of having so many resources available, some that are connected directly to technology. We’ve also had some partnerships, like with WILL, where they have some television supports for those families as well. And parents and teachers have been talking about other things they can do that aren’t related to technology. So I think it’s like a lot of things, it’s evolving, it’s getting better every week. I think parents are appreciative.  We’re also very aware as educators that this is a really stressful time for our families. Some are trying to meet basic needs around food. So we want the learning experiences to be positive and supportive, but we’re trying to balance that and not create more stress in a household that already may be feeling that. 

Does the district have enough Chromebooks for every family that needs one?

Right now we believe that every household that wanted or requested one has one, which is why we’re coming back in each of the subsequent weeks and offering more. So we think we have a pretty good one-to-one at our middle and high schools. We believe elementary campuses have met the need to make sure families that needed one have one in their home. And now we’re really leaning back in to provide additional devices. So I would think that we’re going to be in position to meet that need over the next several weeks as it evolves. We’re trying to be thoughtful about the amount of devices we deploy, because at some point we’re going to need some of those Chromebooks again when students return in the fall, and it takes some time to reconnect those devices if we choose to pull some, any or all those devices back into the school. My guess is that we’ll probably have another 1,500 (Chromebooks) available over the next few weeks. And I think that will be getting really close to meeting the needs of those families at that point. 

And how does the school closures affect how students get promoted to the next grade level? 

So one of the things that happened when the state superintendent came out with her guidance around remote learning was really a no harm done to children moving forward. And so we’ve embraced that mindset. Everything we’re doing is to try to lift the student up, but not to in any way penalize (the student). So whatever grades you have basically at the end of third quarter are your grades, but you certainly can improve your grades. And if you are not completing work, rather than a failure, we will talk about more of an incomplete. 

That works for everybody but your high school senior. At this point, the high school principals and teachers have identified seniors that have finished and met their requirements. And then they’re really pushing in and leaning into those seniors that still need to meet some requirements to ensure their graduation. So I think that we’re all taking the approach of one of compassion, and help to keep learning going, but not in any way create harm. We recognize that when we return in the fall, and whatever form or fashion that looks like, that everybody will have not been the place that they would normally be as they start a new grade level or start new courses. And our teachers are great at adapting and assessing early on in the year where students are at and then modifying their lessons to meet their needs. 

But I don’t envision anyone in any way their grades being negatively impacted by what’s happening right now. 

What about summer school?

So we have not had any formal conversations, but I’m not envisioning summer school in the traditional manner, because right now, again, based on the governor’s directives, we’re not envisioning large groups of students returning to campus over the summer. But we have talked briefly about what that might look like in remote learning. And those conversations are going to happen over the next few weeks. But I’m not envisioning the traditional summer school model that we’ve seen over the last few years.

What about graduation?

We have a virtual graduation that will occur at the end of May. Right now we’re looking at late July (for in-person commencement). We’re trying to push it out as far as we can and also recognize that at some point, possibly some of our current seniors may be leaving for post high school experiences. We know that that could vary too, as we hear universities may be going online. 

We’re hoping that at some point, we can have an in-person graduation. I’ve heard suggestions from the end of July until the end of December, that possibly even having an in- person graduation at the end of the first semester when things have settled.  We’ll certainly watch from the governor’s directives around how large groups can gather, the regional office of education, and our local public health district are all partners that will guide those decisions. We have about 350, 400 graduates every year at each high school. 

We’ve talked about football fields, we’ve talked about larger spaces. But right now our hope is to still look for that in-person experience. What that might look like I think is still to be determined. The earliest we’ve talked about it is late July, and we’ve talked about all the months between July and the end of December.

Does the district have any contingency plans in case schools are closed again this fall?

I think we learned a lot in this first chapter of COVID-19 around food, and what our families need. We’ve created a pretty significant platform around remote learning. We also are finding that by providing devices to homes and by mitigating the access to technology that we are beginning to sort of level that playing field. I would sense that if there is another stay-at-home order in the fall, that we’re going to be in a much better place in terms of the timely response and also making sure families already have devices. We’re not going to have to roll out the numbers of devices that we did this spring. I’m in several conversations. We have an area superintendents group that meets with the regional superintendent on a regular basis. I’m in a larger group called the large urban districts, and so that’s large school districts across the state. So those are two spaces where we’ve begun to have some conversations about what school might look like in the fall. What would happen if we do have a second spike?  We’re watching states that are ahead of us have those conversations. California is one. We can learn a lot from our partners across the nation and their thinking around what school may need to look like. But I think we’re all very hopeful that these next few months things might settle and that we might be able to return to a version of school that may look similar with some additional measures that just honor the face that we want to keep everyone safe, both staff and students when we reopen in the fall.

How much will the district receive in federal stimulus money, and what will it be used for?

We’re probably looking at about $2.6 million (from) the CARES Act. We’ve had some initial conversations around technology and resources. One of the things that we would really like to look at is equitable access at home and at school. And that may mean being really thoughtful about the devices that are out there, and if possible, maybe leaving those in the homes and then replenishing those at the campus level. We’ve talked about adding more internet hotspots across the community and really leveling the playing field for access to the internet beyond the COVID-19 experience. 

We’ve talked about more social emotional learning support, so possibly adding some social workers at some campuses and counselors as well. We’ve talked about making sure that the English language learners, the students with special needs, any student that might be behind or was behind prior to the COVID-19 that we’ve got interventionists and supports in place at those schools to help not only mitigate COVID but even catch up in a thoughtful way over the next eight to 12 months of learning.

Is the district and other community resources able to meet the food needs of families in the community?

So far we’ve been able to meet the needs of our families. We do about 1,200 boxes every Monday for our drive thru and another 1,200 for mobile deliveries on Fridays. We think we can get to around 1,400 on both of those days before we sort of max out on a couple different things. One is just the amount of food that we’re receiving, and the other thing is just the space in the cold storage. 

I think we’re in a pretty positive place right now. If that need really escalated again to a number beyond the 1,400 for both days, I think we’d have to sort of revisit what else we can do if we need to add another day. I think the other reality is that we’re really only providing breakfast and lunch for students under the age of 18. We certainly know that family members over 18 need breakfast and lunch, and we certainly know our children need dinner and they need food on the weekends. And so that’s where the CU Better Together initiative has really been a real benefit to our families and our school community. It just started today. I visited two of the three sites. We had several community partners, everyone was being very thoughtful about the distance with which they had things set up. Everyone had gloves and masks on, and it was linked right into our drive thru. So as families were picking up our drive thru boxes, we invited them to come around the corner, and then they were able to pick up some more food for anybody in their household. And so I think that is going to help us over the next few weeks. But it is something that we’re monitoring and we’re tracking, because the needs certainly may evolve, depending on the time span of work closures and the governor’s social distancing guidelines. 

How did the district come up with its plan to provide WiFi hotspots throughout the community?

We did sort of a heat map of accessibility and where WiFi existed. And then we used that heat map data to sort of guide where we wanted to place hotspots. Whether it was the University of Illinois or MTD, we also shared that information with them.I think this probably confirmed where in our community we need to push more support around access to WiFi. So I think that will continue to evolve. I think the partners that I mentioned all have the same hope is that we can level the access for our families and our community. So I think those conversations are just beginning in terms of what this looks like post COVID-19

Will the continued school closures speed up referendum construction?

We’re going to start with the campuses that do have construction projects. And we’re working right now on plans for teachers to safely get in and pack up classrooms and honor social distancing. We also are having some conversations around student items and how we want to offer those back to families in a thoughtful way. And then we certainly think that it could help us with proceeding with our construction projects. I’m not sure it’s going to gain us as many days and weeks as we hoped, because what we’re also seeing with construction is some contractors and subcontractors are  having to mitigate or modify how quickly they can get the work done. And so even though we we feel like we may have gained some weeks, we’re going to need those weeks because we want to make sure that our construction projects honor, safety, social distancing, that we take all the cautions that we can to keep our construction workers healthy while they finish up the work this summer. 

Is the district getting everything it needs from the Illinois State Board of Education, as well as state and federal officials? And what are your concerns moving forward?

We are a large school district. We’re the largest in the area with over 10,000 students. And with that comes some opportunities and some challenges We’re also a community that has supported public education well. A large portion of our funding comes from our local property taxes. This community continues to grow because Champaign is a healthy community, a growing community. So the CARES (Act) money from the federal government is going to be a huge lift for us. It’s really going to help us, we believe, level the playing field around access to technology moving forward. It’s also going to help us with some of the social emotional support that we think our families and teachers will benefit from when they return in the fall.

Our community has been there for us from the beginning, has really leaned in and provided encouragement. A day doesn’t go by where I don’t get a text message from my board member, the mayor, or just somebody reaching out saying, ‘hey, hang in there, you know, you’re doing great. Your schools are working really hard to support our families.’ I think it’s a community that really values public education. I think it’s a community that appreciates the thoughtfulness that we’ve as we moved through this development of at-home learning and what that looks like when schools are closed. I would be remiss if I didn’t remind everyone that schools are open. Teachers are teaching. Kids are trying to learn. The buildings may have physically closed, but the work of teaching and learning, of our teachers still connecting with our students every day — that’s happening. That more than anything is what I would want as a superintendent, that our teachers and our students and our families are still connecting and trying their best in what we would say is uncharted territory.

So, you don’t have any concerns?

Part of the reason that you go into education is that you believe that as a teacher or as an educator that we’re going to figure it out. I’m completing my 36th year in the profession. Do I worry that we’re going to have some students that are behind when they return in the fall? Sure, I certainly would have loved to have had the six to eight weeks of instruction in the traditional way with the teachers who are masters at what they do and having the opportunity to see those students for those weeks. I worry about that. But I also know there’s a resiliency that comes at these times when teachers and families see the best in each other. I think schools will raise their value level in the fall. I think parents are going to be grateful when we reopen. I think they’re going to be appreciative of what school has been for them and for their children, I think they’re going to be excited to return in the fall, and whatever version that looks like, hopefully a somewhat normal version where the bus comes up and the students get on, and we’re able to feed them breakfast and do some learning and have a healthy lunch and some recess time. And so I’m not worried because I know the good that comes from difficult situations. I’m not worried because I know that the people that care most, the leaders in our community, the teachers, the administrators, the Board of Education, everybody’s going to step in that gap for our families. I’m actually really encouraged that from this difficult situation, I think we’re going to wrap around each other in ways that we haven’t seen before. And we’re going to leave this stronger and more healthy as a school community, because we know the value now of public education in our community. 

Lee Gaines is an education reporter for Illinois Newsroom. Follow her @LeeVGaines.

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