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Watch now: For those returning to Central Illinois schools, questions and concerns persist
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COVID-19 | SPECIAL REPORT

Watch now: For those returning to Central Illinois schools, questions and concerns persist

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A heart with an encouraging message is on the sign of Bloomington High School, 1202 E. Locust St.

Editor's note: This is the second part of a series looking at how Central Illinois districts and parents are preparing for back-to-school. Read the first part here

BLOOMINGTON — Across the state last week, school officials unveiled plans for returning to student instruction. And like so much of life in this time of COVID, the circumstances have created an unprecedented situation, with different approaches and philosophies.

Concerns and unanswered questions abound for those planning to send their children back to in-person learning, as well as teachers and staff.

“The anxiety level as we get closer to the start of the school year is increasing,” said Bloomington District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly. “That’s true for our staff members as well as parents,” and is a “natural reaction,” he said.

Laura O'Donnell, superintendent of the Stanford-based Olympia School District, said teachers and staff “are anxious because there are a lot of unknowns,” and some are especially worried because of health conditions that could make them susceptible to COVID-19 complications. The district is “looking for alternatives” for them, she said.

About 40 teachers so far in District 87 have applied for remote teaching spots, Reilly said. If more apply than are needed, there will be an “interview and selection process,” he said.

The McLean County Unit 5 school board heard from a dozen people opposed to the district’s Return to School plan before voting to approve it last week. One condition of the board approval — which was not a state requirement for implementing plans — was that Superintendent Kristen Weikle would be able to revise the guidelines as needed.

Weikle, in an interview last week, described the plan as a “living, breathing document” that could change if the number of cases of COVID-19 in the county begins to rise.

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McLean County Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle addresses the district's detailed plans describing its approach to bringing students back in the fall while following precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Administrators developed the plan in consultation with a Pandemic Advisory Committee and following guidance from state and local health officials. But Lindsey Dickinson, president of the Unit 5 Education Association, said the teachers’ union was not involved in developing the plan and only consulted about potential contract violations.

“We are overcrowded, understaffed, underfunded and the pandemic has laid all of this bare,” said Tyler McWhorter, a Normal Community High School teacher.

Weikle said she respects those who disagree with the plan. “We will make changes if our local data indicates that we need to or if we get direction from the state,” she said.

Some parents and teachers, however, say they feel confident about the safeguards being put in place.

Jennifer Poncin, who has been a long-term substitute for Unit 5 and will be teaching math intervention in small groups in the fall, is choosing to send her three students to school. Poncin is not worried about the coronavirus, and is confident they will understand the importance of wearing a mask, washing hands and social distancing as necessary.

“Every school district is going to work really hard to find options for everybody,” she said.

Poncin said she would be more concerned if her children were in elementary school, but two are in high school and one is in middle school.

Online learning poses several challenges as well, she added. From a teacher’s perspective, she said there were struggles to hold students accountable with e-learning and staying in contact. Having her students attend in-person classes, she hopes, will help them stay motivated.

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Unit 5 teacher Jennifer Poncin has plenty of lesson plans to prepare as she finishes summer vacation at her home in Normal. She will be teaching math at Parkside and Kingsley junior high schools this fall. Her plans are to send her children back to school for their own academic well-being. "We're all healthy with no underlying conditions, so I think it will be worth the risk," she said.

“I don’t want my kids to be the ones who are doing nothing,” she said. “My kids are generally hard workers, they get good grades, they’re not slackers, but I was seeing some of that slacking going on. We were all sheltering in place for all those weeks and we were all in survival mode for a long time.”

In District 87, the president of the teachers union said the development of return plans had gone very well from his perspective.

“There are certainly teachers who feel we should have been more involved,” said Joe Lewis, president of the Bloomington Education Association and a history teacher at Bloomington High School. But, he said, “the district has been receptive to our questions.”

He said teachers' chief concerns are whether social distancing can be maintained and health concerns for those who want to teach remotely. Both will depend in large measure on how many parents select remote learning for their children.

“Members are certainly frustrated and anxious,” Lewis said. “As our COVID numbers keep going up in McLean County, that anxiety will increase.”

Another concern for districts is whether they will have trouble finding substitute teachers if their full-time teachers become ill or have to undergo quarantine. A shortage of substitutes has been an ongoing problem, even before the pandemic.

“The challenge we have as school leaders and school board members is tremendous right now,” said Reilly. “This is a difficult time for education. I’m very confident we’re taking all the steps we possibly can for the health, safety and well-being of our students and staff.”

Specific concerns

Some parents and students worry that none of the available options will address their educational needs.

Andrew Beaty, who has five children with special needs who attend Unit 5 schools, said in an email to The Pantagraph that “the options that are available do not take into account the educational and emotional needs of students with special needs.”

He has decided to homeschool his four younger boys and is still evaluating what to do for his son that is in high school.

“Our younger boys do not do well with multiple changes in routine, and not having a consistent daily school routine will not work for them,” said Beaty. “They really struggled with the inconsistency of school options from their school in the spring, and so we have developed a plan that will work for them.

“Neither of the two options proposed for our high school son are doable, but we're concerned about keeping him on track for his future vocational goals, so that is why we're still working with the district to see if there are ways we can make his education work for this fall.”

Another concern has been raised by Unit 5 students in Advanced Placement and Dual Credit classes, many of which they say they could only continue if they returned to in-person learning under the plan being offered.

“The unreasonable options offered at Unit 5 force us students to choose between protecting our families and health, and our education and future,” the students wrote in an online petition on change.org.

The petition, calling for the district to find ways to offer the AP courses through remote learning, had more than 500 signatures as of Sunday afternoon.

Weikle said district leaders understand the concerns and are working on possible solutions. She said they hoped to have more information available next week.

The district community is “all in different places with their comfort level and what they think is right in regards to Return to School, so I respect everyone has a different opinion and parents have choices in regards to which option they select for their student,” Weikle said.

“So I trust that the parents are going to make the decision that they feel is right for their family.”

Another concern for districts is whether they will have trouble finding substitute teachers if their full-time teachers become ill or have to undergo quarantine. A shortage of substitutes has been an ongoing problem, even before the pandemic.

“The challenge we have as school leaders and school board members is tremendous right now,” Reilly said. “This is a difficult time for education. I’m very confident we’re taking all the steps we possibly can for the health, safety and well-being of our students and staff.”​

Kelsey Watznauer contributed to this story. 


PHOTOS: Central Illinois face mask selfies 

Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota

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