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'I wish it didn't end like this': DeKalb County schools grapple with COVID-19 school closures

DeKalb County school districts grapple with end of in-person academic year in COVID-19 crisis

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DeKALB - Like many high school seniors, Hailey Burnett said she couldn't wait to be done with school, but now that Gov. JB Pritzker has officially ended in-person school for the remainder of the academic year, she 'feels robbed' and is mourning all the things she'll miss.

"I have accepted this is the end for us, but I wish it didn't end like this," Burnett, a senior at DeKalb High School, said. "I should be at school right now complaining about being at school and that I just want it to be summer. I was so ready to graduate and leave, but I didn't want it to happen like this."

Pritzker's order came down Friday after his stay-at-home order was extended through April 30. Now, local districts are attempting to find a way to traverse the new normal while honoring the traditions many seniors have been looking forward to for years.

"I wanted to say goodbye to my teachers," Burnett said. "To my school friends that I will likely never see again, to the hallways that I've been in for four years. I wanted the graduation every senior before me has gotten. I wanted the senior parking lot breakfast, senior prom, senior prank, senior spring sports. My last month with all my friends before everyone goes their separate ways."

DeKalb District 428 Superintendent Jamie Craven said he feels for the students.

"We just feel horrible about it," Craven said. "Unfortunately, the spring of 2020 is something these 17 and 18-year-old kids are going to talk about for the rest of their lives. I know that so much of the educational experience isn't just in the classroom, it's everything that goes on beyond school hours."

Chad Willis, superintendent of Indian Creek D-425, said the district will take the next few days to sort out details involving graduation, spring concerts and other plans.

"So many of you have worked so hard to learn and grow in both the classroom and in extracurricular activities that today's announcement may feel like a step back," Willis said in a statement to the students. "I'm confident our collective strength will shine through during the remainder of the school year, and we will emerge even stronger."

Thursday, the Illinois Department of Public Health announced the largest single-day death total, with a total of more than 1,000 Illinoisans dead from COVID-19 so far.

"The science says our students can't go back to their normal routine," Pritzker said Friday. "My priority remains unchanged: how do we save the most lives during this difficult time?"

Pritzker said $569 million in federal aid from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act will be distributed to Illinois schools, with public school districts receiving aid proportional to the number of low-income students to help secure remote technology and meals for families.

Sycamore District 427 Superintendent Kathy Countryman, who will retire at the end of the school year, said Pritzker's order wasn't a surprise.

"We've been hearing that this is maybe the stance they'd be taking," Countryman said. "So it's not a surprise but we were hoping to be able to see our kids again, but we also understand the need for safety precautions."

With the stay-at-home order in place and firm social distancing measures preventing gatherings of more than 10, spring graduations may also need to be rethought, though no concrete plans are yet known.

"We have been meeting on that," Countryman said. "We'll push out the details to the parents once we know something. We want to honor that group and come up with good, unique plans that honor and celebrate them."

Craven said D-428 has a tentative backup plan for graduation in June, but other options are being discussed.

"We have a draft plan to share with the board on how end-of-year grades will be determined," Craven said. "Then there's so many things that districts have to consider: how do students retrieve personal items? Do we try to have a graduation sometime in June? Try to do a virtual graduation? What about end-of-year honors nights? We're still trying to work through those plans."

Other logistics, such as AP courses, which often count for college credits aiding incoming college freshmen, are also in flux. Craven said the College Board, which handles Advanced Placement testing, is organizing a way for students to take the assessment virtually.

In District 427, Countryman said plans for fall semester are up in the air, though district leaders are brainstorming just in case.

"We are working on re-entry plans," Countryman said. "The governor called them transitional guidance in his press conference today. When we come back in the fall we are going to be mindful of all the things we didn't close out the year with. We're looking at planning to make sure the transition back into the school environment comers everything from academics to emotions."

Craven said the best advice he can offer seniors is hope for the future.

"The best thing I can say is move forward," Craven said. "You're going to have great experiences in college or whatever is after. Make the best of that."

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