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Local

Sycamore teachers push for remote learning as board supports hybrid model with delayed start

School board considers pushing back start of school to Sept. 8

Beth Helton, administrative assistant to the principal at Sycamore High School, talks on the phone Monday behind a Plexiglas shield at the front desk in the main office. Sycamore High School is taking many steps to help ensure students and staff remain safe as they return to school later this month amid the pandemic.
Beth Helton, administrative assistant to the principal at Sycamore High School, talks on the phone Monday behind a Plexiglas shield at the front desk in the main office. Sycamore High School is taking many steps to help ensure students and staff remain safe as they return to school later this month amid the pandemic.

SYCAMORE – Almost a dozen teachers pleaded with the Sycamore 427 school board to consider going to full-time remote learning at the board meeting on Tuesday at the onset of the meeting, but the board took no action.

As of Tuesday, the plan for a hybrid in-person/remote-learning model remains for District 427.

In a discussion after Superintendent Steve Wilder's update on the return to learn plan, board members did broach moving the start of the school year to Sept. 8 as opposed to Aug. 24. They will vote on the proposal next week.

Board member Julenne Davey was the only board member to address the teachers' concerns.

"How are they going to feel after two weeks?" Davey said. "I don't know how we can ignore them and I don't understand [why] we can't err on the side of safety. So many neighboring districts have gone to remote. ... What are these people seeing that we can't see? Science, science, science. Health, safety. I am astounded we are thinking two more weeks can make anything different."

The teachers were mostly clad in Sycamore Educators Association shirts and spoke in favor of remote learning. However, a parent and a senior spoke in favor of in-person learning.

Kylie Ryder, a senior at the high school, said she felt like the students' voice had been missing from the debate.

"We have learned from our wonderful teachers that you can only learn from trying," Ryder said. "Whether you succeed or fail, you never stop trying. Right now students have the option for remote learning. Other districts have reversed course, taking that choice away from students and the community. Please allow students that choice."

Jason Funderburg, a parent in the district, said it's a responsibility to get children back in school.

"The data supports it," Funderburg said. "You see reports of heightened suicides, and child abuse taking place in that sector. In a survey, 66% of stakeholders wanted kids back in school. Please consider them tonight."

The hybrid plan has students alternating days in an A/B schedule. It was approved last month with Davey the only vote against.

Pam Olson, a teacher in the district whose children graduated from Sycamore and has two grandchildren in the district, equated the plan to the blockbuster franchise Jurassic Park, with the virus taking the place of dinosaurs.

"Let's be clear," Olson said. "In my informed opinion the hybrid plan is a fantasy world created from magical thinking anchored by faith and hope."

Aside from safety concerns, teachers also said that main points of the plan have not been fine-tuned, leaving them feeling unprepared to start in less than two weeks.

Pam Nelson, a teacher in the district for 26 years, pointed out how teachers are expected to clean their classrooms between periods while also monitoring students in the hallways.

Sue Schafer, also a teacher, also raised cleaning concerns.

"At the high school, we're down two custodians," Schafer said. "Last year with a full staff the second floor was not cleaned. I know 'cause I'm on the second floor and complained. How can it be cleaned down two custodians?

The lack of preparedness led to the board inquiring about a later start, and Wilder said that was discussed internally as an option. Teachers would report Aug. 31 officially but would have more options prior to that.

Board President James Dombeck said he was in favor of the delay if the time was used well, a sentiment echoed by Board Member Jeff Jacobson.

"When I reflect on this tough decision we have to make, two weeks I seem comfortable with as long as the time is used in a wise fashion," Dombeck said. "I'm not a contract lawyer so I don't know if there's a way to make all those two weeks more mandatory. But anything we can do to get kids back into the classroom for social-emotional learning is a better way."

Board Member Steve Nelson pointed out the two-week delay could also allow the district's delayed Chromebook shipment a chance to arrive. Using iPads as a replacement in the meantime was discussed Tuesday.

One teacher extrapolated on county positivity rates and other statistics over the Sycamore population and said that would result in hundreds of cases and maybe 30 of them severe.

But board member Eric Jones pushed back against those types of estimates.

"It's a flawed way of looking at it," Jones said. "The question needs to be asked if we're safer opening or closing. That's where I struggle rationalizing if closing schools makes it safer."

Jones said that many kids may have to go to daycares or stay with older relatives. He said the class size should average about eight students, which he said is a safe situation.

"Are we relegating those to higher risk?" Jones said. "We have to make sure we're making the right decision but putting the burden onto others is one I can't rationalize to myself."

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