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Evanston Township HIgh School is one of several local schools that have dropped plans for a mix of in-person and remote learning for the fall in favor of starting the school year remote only.

Bill Healy

As First Day Nears, Some School Districts Are Already Dropping Plans For In-Person Learning

Schooling from home was painful for Sheela Raja’s daughters this spring, especially for her soon-to-be eighth grader. Summer couldn’t come soon enough.

“I even reached out to the teacher, and I said, ‘She wants to give up,’ ” Raja remembers writing. “She said, ‘Just tell her, turn in a couple more assignments. You’re almost there.’ ”

As much of a struggle as it was, Raja was concerned when District 97 in Oak Park proposed a hybrid model for reopening schools in the fall. It would split kids up in groups to have a mix of in-person and remote instruction. But in a recent turn, the district decided instead to start remotely only.

“I think they’re doing what they have to do, both looking at the local trends, looking at the local data, thinking about their teachers, the staff,” Raja said.

In the past few weeks, school districts across the Chicago area have been releasing their proposals for reopening schools in the fall, and some like District 97 have already changed course. School district U-46 in Elgin and the Evanston public schools also dropped plans for a mix of in-person and remote learning and instead will be starting remotely. There’s pressure on Chicago Public Schools to switch to a remote plan, too. Outside Chicago, some districts are simply deciding from the get-go to be remote only. Earlier this week, southwest suburban Plainfield voted to start the year for its 31 schools at home.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers, one of the state’s main teachers unions, said a remote start is the safest plan. IFT president Dan Montgomery said the union consulted with health experts and looked over research before taking that stance.

“Children from ages 10 to 18 spread it as easily as adults,” he said, citing early research on children and COVID-19. “That is also part of our thinking here.”

The IFT also has called for additional funding to help families that need child care and for all schools — no matter which model they choose — to prioritize students with special needs.

Frustration with loss of in-person learning

While some parents agree with the return to remote learning, others are angry with their district for switching. For some with young children, child care is a major issue. Others question if their children can benefit from e-learning with how things played out in the spring. Some think a hybrid plan is a safe way to return to school if everyone follows guidelines.

Evanston parent Angelique Ketzback is bracing herself for the fall when all four of her children will be starting the school year remotely. Originally, her oldest daughter was to return to Evanston Township High School under a hybrid plan, but now, the district has decided to start remotely.

“Evanston, we’re all wearing masks. We’re all keeping distance,” Ketzback said. “I would hope that everybody out of their conscience, that if they’re having symptoms, that they would stay home. But something’s got to be figured out because we’re five months in of people being at home, and I don’t want us to be a year from now talking about the same thing.”

Ketzback knows there are risks, but she thinks COVID-19 cases are low enough in Evanston that if everyone follows guidelines, people can safely be at school for part of the week.

She said it’s hard for kids to build important relationships with their teachers remotely. That face-to-face interaction is crucial for some kids, like her daughter who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She said remote learning took a toll on her, and now she’s diagnosed with depression, which Ketzback said the family can afford to treat. She said equitable education and resources remain an issue in the district, and staying remote could deepen that.

“There’s a lot of kids in the Evanston community that don’t have the ability to get the help that they need or get the support that they need if it’s not coming from the school,” she said.

For now, Ketzback is preparing her kids for the fall. She doesn’t know how well schools will address gaps in learning, so her kids are doing virtual education programs over the summer. She said it isn’t fair that all kids don’t have the same opportunities.

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.

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