Since the summer, the debate between parents and school administrators over whether students should stick with remote learning or offer some in-person learning has ebbed and flowed.
But over the past couple of weeks, as daily COVID-19 cases continue to hit record highs, the debate has come roaring back with a new intensity. Some county health authorities are recommending that all local schools return to remote learning, but some schools are saying no — raising questions on all sides about whether students and teachers are safe in school buildings.
In late October, the Lake County Health Department recommended that schools stop in-person instruction and return to all-remote learning. DuPage and McHenry county health officials also made similar recommendations.
But school districts like north suburban Bannockburn and west suburban Addison are rejecting the recommendation. At a recent Bannockburn school board meeting, many parents spoke up against going remote. Parent Brian Adley said it would hurt younger students.
“Kids like my son, who has a learning disability,” he said during the virtual board meeting. “He’s going to lose an entire year of education.”
Exasperated parents implored board members to listen to the scientists who say that wearing a mask, keeping distance and washing hands will keep everyone safe.
This is despite the data driving recommendations from local health officials. Mark Pfister, executive director of the Lake County Health Department, said the 45 school districts in his county requested his agency’s help in figuring out metrics for when to take precautions. When the cases in the county far surpassed warning levels, the county then recommended a return to virtual learning.
“We were at 100 cases per day per 100,000 when we made that recommendation. Now, we’re almost at 500 cases per day per 100,000,” Pfister said. “These are situations where we can make a recommendation, we can provide data. But ultimately it’s the decision of the school board and the superintendents.”
Add to that, Pfister said, that schools don’t get a complete picture. Many younger kids don’t get tested and in some cases, parents have refused to have their children tested.
Teachers like Rebecca Schwartz want schools to follow the county’s recommendations.
Her school, Lake Forest High in the northern suburbs, has been phasing in a hybrid plan for the last few weeks. Schwartz had been concerned since the start of the year about in-person learning. High schools need to manage students switching rooms throughout the day and can’t rely on a stationary pod system like elementary schools. But Schwartz said many teachers agreed to go back because they were told the district would pay attention to the metrics. Her school has yet to return to remote learning and she said teachers feel stuck.
“Medical professionals are telling us to do this. It is no longer the teachers recommending … virtual learning in July,” she said. “The health professionals are saying to do it, and it is amazing that such a well-educated community is not listening.”
Schwartz said while the district has provided all safety precautions, students and teachers are still at risk. During this week’s board meeting, Lake Forest High School administrators said they’re considering a scale back of the hybrid plan that could take effect as early as next week.
This comes as the Illinois Department of Public Health is urging residents to stay home for the next three weeks and only to leave their homes for essentials. But it didn’t take the step of shutting down school buildings and said the goal is to reduce transmission so “businesses and schools can remain open.”
Parents pushing to keep in-person learning going often point to studies that show low transmission rates in the school setting. Dr. Larry Kociolek, assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University, said while transmission between students and student to teacher is rare, the data is incomplete.
“If we had data to support whether or not we should be in school, there would be universal recommendations,” he said.
He said school administrators find themselves in a difficult position weighing the risks of returning to in-person versus what’s lost when school buildings are shut down, especially for low-income students and kids with disabilities. He said while some school districts are able to minimize risk better than others, transmission isn’t the only concern.
“Even though they may not be transmitting in school to other children, there may be so many children excluded from the classroom that it may become difficult to perform those levels of contact tracing,” he said.
With a fluctuation of kids in remote learning because of quarantining, that can also put more of a burden on lesson planning.
Joshua Fulcher runs Beacon Place in Waukegan, a community center. He’s staying out of the in-person versus virtual debate, but he said school communities might be putting too much importance on one thing.
“The goal has been trying to figure out how to come back safely, rather than let’s decide what we’re going to do and do a good job of it,” he said.
Fulcher’s organization offers educational after-school programs. They’ve been able to adjust by seeing students in small socially-distant groups.
He said some schools are getting creative, but it needs to be widespread. To boost engagement, they could start small. Teachers could take a day to make short home visits or districts could send small incentives like candy to each student.
“It’s almost become a footnote that when we’re talking about remote learning, it’s an offhand, ‘Oh, and we know that it’s not as effective,’” he said. “Ok, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about how to make it more effective.”