GENOA – The Genoa-Kingston District 424 School Board on Tuesday shot down Superintendent Brent O'Daniell's new recommendation to begin the school year with full remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, shifting gears from the previously approved hybrid program finalized in July.
The board also gave their consensus to push back the start of school year to Aug. 31 to give teachers and staff more time to better prepare. They will conduct a formal vote to amend the district calendar at their next meeting.
Board member Jake Wesner was the only one to express clear support of the full remote proposal.
"Where everybody says kids are safe in this, I don't know what facts they're actually looking at versus urban legends," Wesner said. "That’s something I'm not willing to take a chance personally with. The person that could die could be me."
Other board members questioned why O'Daniell was bringing forward a change of plans now, weeks before the start of school.
"Give them a choice," said Board Member David Cleveland. "If you go full remote, you’re not giving anybody a choice. The United States of America should have a choice on what we do and what I'm going to do with my children."
"I'm not in support of full remote. That's what I chose for my family, but as far as the community, I can’t support this one," said board member Julie Ratcliff. "I've got to be a voice for the kids. They need to be in school."
O'Daniell at the start of the meeting Tuesday gave an impassioned presentation urging the board to consider fully-remote.
"I knew there are passionate people on both sides of this issue," O'Daniell said. "And I hope you will see that I understand both sides and only want what it safest for students and our staff and the community."
O'Daniell said the 180-switch is due to new information from public health officials. He said he's also conferred with the DeKalb County Health Department, who supports the fully remote plan.
He said new information from the IDPH released Tuesday shows the viral respiratory disease can spread when people have close contact with each other at less than six feet for more than 15 minutes cumulatively daily, not per instance.
O'Daniell said GK buses as they would be set up for the hybrid plan don't allow for social distancing, and only one of the district's 11 bus routes would be able to accommodate the ideal 12-students-per-bus
"There are still a lot of unknowns with regards to COVID-19," he said. "The safest environment is through a full-remote learning program....Now we have the added number of students that can become carriers, and take the virus home back to siblings, parent and grandparents."
Dozens of parents spoke either in person Tuesday or via submitted public comment expressing strong support of an in-person or hybrid plan, to allow those families who wished to send children in person, or keep children home, the option to choose.
GK parent Lisa Schuester echoed the sentiment expressed by many parents, that working full-time without the freedom to work from home or quit a job is not conducive to remote learning, especially with young children not attuned to using technology for multiple hours per day.
"My husband and i cannot financially support ourselves on a single income," Schuester said. "We can't do it. We're setting up our kids for failure. We are not a large school district. We had a plan in place, i don't understand why we're back stomping so late in the game."
GK Sophomore Zachary Neblock spoke in support of in-person learning, saying the district's remote learning in the spring wasn't favorable to him.
"E-learning wasn't acceptable last spring," Neblock said, calling it a failure. "I'm a special ed student, school's already difficult for me. The lack of teacher involvement, lack of effort, and amount of time it took to answer questions is not acceptable. I personally believe e-learning can't get better. The only reason I passed last year was because of one teacher."
Educators throughout the county have said the remote learning model experienced in the spring won't look like what it does this fall, as teachers and administrators have fine-tuned the ability to instruct from afar.
O'Daniell said he's also received some emails from some expressing concern about his decision in regards to the Genoa-Kingston teachers' union.
"There's a misconception that I have been pressured by the union to bring this proposal forward and that is not the case," O'Daniell said. "In none of our conversations have we ever been pressured by them for any reason to change the plan that was approved previously."
Ben Owen, who represented the GK teachers' union Tuesday, said he didn't feel strongly either way for in-person or remote learning. He said a recent survey showed union members teaching at the K-5 level support returning to the classrooms, while teachers at older grade levels support remote learning.
He said the biggest frustration for teachers is the unknowns, how to protect themselves when so much of the virus is still unknown.
"Fear is at 100%," Owen said. "We are three days from the start of the school year and there are so many things unknown right now."
This is story has been updated.