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Local

Sycamore School Board approves return to learn plan despite teacher pushback on safety

Jennifer McCormick, president of the Sycamore Education Association, said while she was grateful to the board for their efforts in attempting to offer some in-person classes twice or three times per week and full remote learning for others, her concern remained for teachers and staff.
Jennifer McCormick, president of the Sycamore Education Association, said while she was grateful to the board for their efforts in attempting to offer some in-person classes twice or three times per week and full remote learning for others, her concern remained for teachers and staff.

SYCAMORE - The Sycamore school board on Tuesday approved their return to learn plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic despite pushback from the Sycamore teachers' union.

Jennifer McCormick, president of the Sycamore Education Association, said while she was grateful to the board for their efforts in attempting to offer some in-person classes twice or three times per week and full remote learning for others, her concern remained for teachers and staff.

"This fall in many feels feels like we're being asked to make a false choice because we don't have a lot of answers," McCormick said.

She said a survey sent to District 427 teachers in Mid-July showed 63.4% don't think it's safe to return to work given the current climate of COVID-19 cases, and 29.1% have considered not returning at all.

"That's a scary figure," McCormick said. "As a board, you know we have a 92% teacher retention rate and I'm scared we're going to lose some, and most of those teachers have over 10 years experience. The concerns for student and staff safety should cause us to pause and consider if we're doing the right thing."

McCormick's comments came after almost 2 hours of deliberation by the school board, who approved the plan almost unanimously. Board Member Julenne Davey was the only nay vote.

"I do not want you to think I'm downplaying all the work, it's just I have too many unanswered questions," Davey said. " I think we're rushing everything because everybody wants normal, there is no normal. We have to take it slower."

Board President Jim Dombeck said while he shares teachers' concerns and said they were included in the configuring of the plan, he supports the district's next steps.

"Unfortunately, this is the type of situation where you can't have all the answers at the present time," Dombeck said. "I think the important thing is we need to move forward...and I think that hybrid plan is the best way to go right now."

Two other teachers spoke at the board meeting Tuesday, expressing concern over returning.

"We heard tonight of teachers having to scrub down desks," said Jake Brens, who teaches eighth grade English. "Well, I can't scrub down desk and be watching people in the hallway. Why do we think all of a sudden we can thrust our students back into schools even at 50% and assume everyone will do the right thing? It's unreasonable to suggest its safe for us to return to school."

More details

There were also more details provided Tuesday for the plan, including what a day will look like for each grade level and when start and end times will be.

For students who opt for the hybrid option -- an A/B schedule which will break students into alternate in-person attendance days, and they'll do remote learning every other day -- elementary students will being their day at 8:50 a.m. and end at 2:20 p.m. Middle schoolers will start at 7:50 a.m. and end at 12:40 p.m., and high schoolers will begin at 7:45 a.m. and end at 12:58 p.m.

Board Member Eric Jones said the start times for middle and high school seemed early to him.

"I remember some research saying that it was much better for high school or adolescents to start their days a bit later," Jones said. "So I'm a little surprised to see how early we're expecting that population of student to get their day started."

Because of the daily schedule, lunches will be amended, and elementary students will be the only ones to eat in the cafeteria, with masks off but social distancing maintained as able, said Kristine Webster, director of learning and teaching. Middle and high schoolers will get a grab and go lunch to take home and eat at the end of the day, and all students are welcome to bring snacks to eat in the classroom as able.

Curriculum

All grade levels will maintain the core curriculum components -- including classes or periods for math, science, English, social studies and physical education. Locker rooms will not be used for P.E., and some changes to the program will be needed to offer social distancing when able and ensure air flow is adequate.

Some parents who spoke Tuesday expressed concern that the high school level still offer honor classes.

Vernon Alexander said he wondered whether the district would continue to offer dual credit courses through the Kishwaukee Education Consortium.

"I haven't heard anything else about KEC classes or dual credit classes, are they not happening?" Alexander said. "And if not, along with honors classes, are we looking at the possibility of doing something with credit?"

Jason Akst shared that concern and said he thought the curriculum details announced Tuesday were vague.

"Just speaking as a parent, I would like in excruciating level of detail as to what is offered via the hybrid plan vs. the online plan because it still sounds very vague to me," Akst said. "And it also sounds coercive toward steering everyone to the hybrid plan."

Day in the life

For a student learning from home or in the classroom, all will be expected to participate as they would during a normal school day in the amended school day schedules provided, with the exception of older high school students who may be able to have some flexibility remotely, said Webster.

Live field trips will not be offered, but some virtual options such as programs through the San Diego Zoo, Yellowstone National Park and Seattle Aquarium may be available.

Jones said he'd like to see the district offer some flexibility in schedules for parents of younger children in remote and hybrid learning settings.

"While I understand the reasoning to want to create consistency for those younger learners," Jones said. "I also want us to acknowledge that those young people are the population that has the least amount of control over their day."

He said shared custody or other considerations should be allowed as able during a child's day, especially in a remote learning environment.

Electives or extracurriculars such as band and choir are still being determined, but Mark Ekstrom, director of building and grounds, because singing or blowing into wind instruments could be a hazard due to COVID-19 being an airborne virus.

"That's something Stever [Wilder] and I will have to talk about, to see what we can do to keep our students safe," Ekstrom said. "IDPH recommends no singing and if they do, they have to be outside. I have got plexiglass to put in front of conductors, to keep teachers safe, but we'll have to look more at that."

Childcare

The OSCAR program, which offers after-school care for children in kindergarten through fifth grade in the district, will not be offered at this time, said Superintendent Steve Wilder.

"We worked with staff while trying to figure out how we could make OSCAR work, but [we can't] primarily because of space, staffing and circumstances beyond our control," Wilder said. "Childcare, however, is an issue. We do think we can provide daycare for a cost to staff in the district."

The Kishwaukee Family YMCA and Sycamore Park District is partnering with the district to offer a full daycare from 2:20 to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, but the district will not offer transportation, Wilder said.

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