When this school year started, educators and students jumped into uncharted school territory. It looked different from one district to the next — and it kept looking different as the school year unfolded, from remote learning, to hybrid learning, to some districts now fully in-person.
Across Illinois, there wasn’t one district with a learning plan that everyone bought into. But for districts that managed to keep moving forward, administrators see the difficult transitions from one learning model to another as helping them prepare for an improved school setting for the fall.
“I would say we are incredibly grateful and blessed to be where we are,” said Fred Heid, superintendent of District 300 in Algonquin.
“We do have a head start, a significant head start,” he said, reflecting on the district’s move to in-person learning. “We can look and reflect at what were the frustrations expressed by staff, what were the frustrations expressed by students, what were the frustrations expressed by parents.”
There was plenty to learn from in Algonquin.
School started remotely last fall for kids in the pre-K to 12th grade district that serves nearly 21,000 students in 26 schools. That didn’t sit well with some parents who thought kids should be fully in-person.
Meanwhile, the school board wanted all teachers to work from the building, which didn’t sit well with teachers who had child care issues or who were concerned for their health.
Despite that, the teachers union and the school district managed to find their way.
“Overall … they’ve listened to us, we’ve listened to them,” said Michael Williamson, president of the teachers union in Algonquin. “We’ve done our best to work with them, but say, ‘Here are the places where we can’t manage that.’ And they’ve done the same with us.”
Back in 2012, the union went on strike. But Williamson said since then they’ve rebuilt a more collaborative relationship with the administration. This school year wasn’t without its contentious moments. Despite sharply differing opinions of how school should work during a pandemic — a common theme across many districts, especially in Chicago, where teachers almost went on strike — Williamson said that willingness to collaborate has been especially crucial in a pressure cooker of a year.
“We were willing to try different types of programs,” Williamson said. “We tried out a couple of things that just didn’t work. I know it was hard on [our members]. It was almost impossible on them. But they tried out some different types of things, and when it didn’t work we backed off of those things and tried something different.”
One was allowing for more students to be in a classroom at a time. But they found that didn’t work for safe social distancing. The school district responded by putting a cap on the number of students per room and brought in more plexiglass dividers.
Heid agrees the collaboration and flexibility were important. There’s a shared goal of returning kids to the classroom and he said the district has stayed in constant communication with families and staff. Heid also said the district continued to take people’s health concerns seriously.
“Everyone’s feelings are largely dependent on how COVID has impacted them directly or indirectly,” Heid said. “You have to be considerate of those feelings, but then manage them.”
Heid said they’ve learned that having clear health protocols and strong mitigation efforts is essential, including regular COVID tests. Many teachers have also been vaccinated. Schools will continue to manage that uncertainty and risk, at least until children get vaccinated.
Most districts in Illinois are now offering some form of in-person learning. Administrators think that’ll give educators a longer runway to work with when planning out next year. Superintendent Rachel Kinder of Valley View school district in the southwest suburbs says more people are getting vaccinated and educators have much more information about COVID-19. She’s far more confident now than a year ago.
“If X happens, then Y,” Kinder said. “We will know exactly how to respond within this continuum that we’ve experienced from full remote to hybrid to now being full in-person. We will be able to slide back along that continuum with a high level of ease, comparatively speaking.”
Kinder said being better prepared allows educators to focus on important issues, like gaps in learning and social emotional needs.
“We are giving our all to filling those gaps in the face of uncertainty with resources or other challenges that are going to come our way from the state level and other external factors,” she said.
Federal COVID-19 relief funds are rolling out to Illinois schools. A portion of that money is targeted toward catching up on unfinished learning. Elementary students could lose on average five to nine months of learning in math by the end of the school year, according to a study from consulting group McKinsey & Company.
Some districts are setting aside funds for student mental health. Mental health-related emergency department visits increased nationally last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That was a 31% increase for teens compared to the same time in 2019.
Superintendent Brian Harris of Barrington is part of a committee of school leaders working through transition plans across the state. He noted Illinois’ mix of urban, suburban and rural school districts.
“Schools look different, and there’s different expectations in all those different communities,” he said. “There has not been a one-size fits all solution for this pandemic.”
Despite the challenges, Harris said it’s made his district more adaptable. He’s learned that families in his district need choices. Even though his district is fully in-person, they will offer fully remote options next year as the pandemic continues.
He said educators have learned a lot from this year about individual students’ needs. While some students struggled with distance learning, some really thrived. He hopes that public educators will try innovative things to individualize learning for students beyond the pandemic.
“I think it’s an opportunity for public education to turn the corner and do some things differently,” Harris said.