The Genoa-Kingston school board on Friday morning gave consensus to superintendent Brent O'Daniell to enact the DeKalb County Health Department's recommendation to switch to remote learning until at least Jan. 19 amid multiple new cases in the district.
Genoa-Kingston became the last district predominantly in the county to take the suggestion, which would have classes begin remote on Nov. 30 in an adaptive pause, with a target return date on Jan. 19.
"I'm not an expert. The health department is the expert," board member Stephanie Northrup said. "We should take their recommendation. They know more than I ever will no matter how much research I do."
Although there was no formal roll call vote, a vote was taken with Julie Ratliff and David Cleveland voting against the pause.
"I agree that we are a part of a larger ecosystem," Cleveland said. "But this board can not affect what people do outside of the district. If we go and do this and we come back on Jan. 19 and none of the numbers change what are we going to do?"
Board president Kristen Andrews responded that the board would do what it is doing now and listen to the health department.
"If their recommendation is wrong now why are we going to listen to them again?" Cleveland responded.
Andrews then asked how can one prove that the recommendation is wrong.
"We can worry about January when January comes, just like we've been doing since the beginning of the pandemic," Andrews said.
The board had originally discussed the matter on Tuesday at the regularly scheduled board meeting, but the members cited a lack of information in tabling the discussion and convening a special meeting Friday.
At the meeting Friday, county health administrator Lisa Gonzalez, district lawyer Brian Bare and union president Ben Owen were among the speakers.
O'Daniell also updated the numbers he sent to board members. He said in an email sent to the board on Wednesday he said there we no new cases. However, he updated the board that there were three new confirmed cases late Wednesday with two more likely probably cases.
Gonzalez was present to speak to one specific point in the letter sent by the health department last week to clarify language the board felt was contradictory in giving a recommendation but saying the department would support the districts regardless.
"The intent was we know it's up to school superintendent and school boards to decide how students learn," Gonzalez said. "The point is regardless of what is decided we will continue as we have been to support school districts in preventing COVID-19 in schools."
Gonzalez also clarified that the pause is basically structured around two 14-day periods after Thanksgiving and after the Christmas break. Small gatherings have been one of the main sources of spread of the virus according to IDPH statistics, so the break until the 19th incorporates those two periods.
Board member Kristin Brynteson pointed out that although the break spans seven weeks, the amount of in-person schooling students will miss is just 12 days on the schools' current hybrid plan.
Another question the board had Tuesday was around a comment O'Daniell made that he was informed that insurance will not cover COVID-19 related lawsuits.
Bare elaborated on the point, saying it's actually part of a long-standing common rider that insurance companies generally don't cover airborne pathogens. Usually, it applies to mold, MRSA, measles and similar things but COVID-19 would fall under the definition.
Bare also said that potentially the school could be opened up to lawsuits from students once they turned 18, even if parents made the decision for them to go hybrid. And again that insurance will not cover litigation fees.
Owen presented data from a survey of teachers administered Wednesday that saw 167 responses of 220 members, mostly indicating a discomfort level of remaining in person.
"One thing I really wanted to point out was that spring wasn't remote learning," Owen said, citing how per ISBE guidelines there were no grades nor new material presented. "We can provide quality education in a remote setting now. To say it will look like it did in the spring is not fair to teachers."
Sycamore, Hinckley-Big Rock and Hiawatha all made announcements early in the week they were going remote per the recommendation, as all had at least some level of in-person learning. DeKalb was already predominantly remote save for a few special needs students and announced Wednesday it would stay remote until at least Jan. 19.
At its board meeting Wednesday Indian Creek decided to go along with the recommendation as well.
After giving consensus Friday, Cleveland said he felt teachers should have to teach from the school buildings whenever possible. Other members felt that the advice from Gov. JB Pritzker and the IDPH, that teachers should work from home if they decide to.
"The GKEA wants options, and families don't have options," Cleveland said.
A special meeting was called for Tuesday to address those staffing concerns and other logistical questions.