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Urbana Schools To Continue Remote Learning For Most Students Until At Least January

A screenshot of an Urbana District 116 Board of Education meeting held Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020.

URBANA – Most Urbana District 116 students will continue to learn remotely — at least until January when the third quarter of the school year is scheduled to begin.

The district initially recommended elementary school students move toward a hybrid schedule, which included in-person instruction in the morning hours four days per week, and remote learning in the afternoons. District officials argued that while remote learning is working for a large portion of families at all grade levels, some students are struggling — and that in-person instruction is particularly important for elementary school students.

Urbana District 116 Superintendent Jennifer Ivory-Tatum pivoted during a Board of Education meeting held Tuesday night. She said that the district does not have enough teachers willing and able to reenter the classroom to make a hybrid model feasible at this time. Ivory-Tatum said recently released guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education now allows districts to use teachers aides and other support personnel to staff classrooms while licensed teachers instruct from remote locations. The new plan, she says, is to target students who are disengaged with remote learning and bring only those children back to school buildings. 

“It won’t be, you know, classrooms with 12 to 15 kids with a teacher, so it will look very different. But at least some of our students who need us the most will still get some support,” Ivory-Tatum said. 

Numerous parents and teachers urged the board and administration not to bring students back into the classroom this fall during the board meeting. Many cited concerns that both students and teachers would contract COVID-19, fears that the ventilation systems in school buildings are not adequate to keep people safe from a virus that transmits through the air, as well as concerns that the quality of instruction offered in in-person settings, given the necessary precautions, may be as good or worse than what students already receive remotely.

Ivory-Tatum said the district is particularly worried about students who appear to be disengaged, which are largely students of color. She said 277 Black students at Urbana High School — that’s more than half of the Black students who attend the high school — are classified as chronically absent because they’ve missed 10% or more of school days so far. At the middle school level, Ivory-Tatum says there are 115 Black, 27 Hispanic and some white students who are chronically absent. At the elementary level, Ivory-Tatum says there are 204 Black, 62 white and 72 Hispanic students who are also classified as chronically absent. 

The new plan will include bringing small groups of the most vulnerable elementary school students into school buildings during their synchronous learning periods, Ivory-Tatum said. She said students will receive support in person from unlicensed staff members, and the district will continue to reach out to and encourage high school and middle school students who are struggling to come to their schools’ in-person learning labs.

In addition to targeting chronically absent students, she said they’ll also reach out to those with special needs and students learning English to come up with a plan to support them in person. 

“While our original modified plan would have put us in line with the rest of the state, the rest of our county and our region here in Central Illinois for districts that are returning students to in-person, this new option will still allow us to support our most marginalized students in some way,” Ivory-Tatum said.

Amy Wolff, a parent of a Kindergartener and third grade student, wrote to the board in an email that remote learning has been difficult for her family. But, she wrote that she’s concerned her third grader, who has special needs, won’t receive the in-person instruction that would be truly beneficial to him, given that teachers will need to maintain six feet of distance from students.

“If I knew specifically what that instruction would look like for a child with learning disabilities, I would be more amenable. If I knew that teachers supported this, if I knew whether or not my child’s teacher would be with him in-person or they would remain remote, I would be more amenable,” Wolff wrote in an email to the board. 

A survey of district staff indicates that 57% believe they should not return to in-person learning at this time, while only about 35% said they somewhat agree, agree or strongly agree that the district should return to some form of in-person instruction.

While most parents who wrote to or spoke during the board meeting opposed returning to in-person instruction, one parent of a child with special needs implored the board to move forward with a hybrid option. 

Elizabeth Clutts wrote in an email to the board that her youngest daughter, who has special needs and is non-verbal, is struggling with remote learning. She wrote that her daughter is “depressed and uninterested in her school time,” and that Zoom classes are overwhelming for her. Clutts added that her daughter’s “walking abilities have declined, her sensory needs have skyrocketed and her social emotional well-being is clearly affected.”

“This current model is unsustainable for us as a family and for the student body as whole,” Clutts wrote.

Board member Peggy Patten said she supported the district administration’s plan to invite small groups of particularly vulnerable students back to school buildings, while continuing on with remote learning for most of the district’s students. Patten also said that virtual learning may be the best option for most students at this point in time.

“It’s unclear to me if in-person, with the restrictions posed by the pandemic, is in fact a better learning environment in all cases, or in most cases,” Patten said.

She said the district also needs more willingness on the part of its staff to make a return to in-person learning feasible.

Board member Ruth Ann Fisher said the board needs to hear from more parents who want their children to return to the classroom. 

“The big thing is when. When are we going to do this? And is when going to be in January? Or is when going to be in another two years?… Go ahead and hate me for saying it, but when are we going to do this?” Fisher said.

Ivory-Tatum said more than 500 parents surveyed said they’d send their children back. However, of those surveyed, about 48% of parents said they weren’t comfortable sending their children back to in-person classrooms, while about 33% said they were, and 19% said they were undecided.

Ivory-Tatum said the district would begin working with teachers and families to gather buy-in for a modified hybrid remote and in-person instruction plan for the third quarter of the school year, which begins in January. 

Lee Gaines is a reporter with Illinois NewsroomFollow her on Twitter: @LeeVGaines

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