Chris Hayden teaches a music class at Unity Elementary. In-person learning means smaller class sizes to accommodate social distancing requirements.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series examining how local school districts are handling instruction in the era of COVID-19. The third story will appear in next week’s edition.

With six weeks of the new school year under their belts, Massac Unit 1 students, staff and parents are continuing to adapt to education in the era of COVID-19.

While everyone got a taste of remote learning at the end of the 2019-20 school year, how to handle the 2020-21 school year started taking shape in mid-July when Supt. Jason Hayes formed a 35-member transition team made up of staff, school board members and other individuals.

That group has been meeting every two to three weeks, evaluating COVID statistics and the best plan to transition back to in-person learning. Its next meeting is set for Friday.

One of the group’s first actions was to survey parents and teachers for their opinions on handling the situation. With an 80% response from both groups, 78% of the parents and 92% of staff selected some in-person learning.

The transition team, the school board and the district are also basing decisions with guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH).

“They provided a joint document that provided both requirements and recommendations,” Hayes said.

While districts around the nation had many options — going full remote; going all in-person; or a combination — Unit 1 “chose the middle of the road option, that allowed us to try to keep everybody 6-feet apart and keep everybody safe so when we do have these cases, we don’t have to shut down entire schools,” Hayes said. “That was the main driver — how can we create the best learning environment we can while keeping the students and staff as safe as possible.”

Unit 1 had its first COVID positive cases just after the Labor Day holiday when two Unity Elementary School staff members were diagnosed. They are now released from quarantine.

Hayes noted that with COVID statistics looking better now than when the district’s plan began formulating, now is the time to begin discussing the next step.

The plan

A draft skeleton plan for that transition is currently being reviewed.

“We don’t have any set parameters to go by for returning to normal transitions. Everything we do is more a testing of the waters,” Hayes said.

“I don’t think we can put a set timeline on it — everything is so fluid and changing — (but) at some point, we’re going to have to pull the trigger and say we’re going to Phase 1 of this return-to-normal plan. But I think we can start talking about it.”

Hayes said when the return does happen, it will be in small steps.

“It’s going to look something like: all the in-person kids all coming at once Monday through Thursday instead of every other day. We’d still dismiss early and send them home with lunch. The full-remote kids would still ‘attend’ Monday through Thursday. Fridays would provide teachers extra time to deal with things like online assessments, online meetings, etc. Then we’d expand that.”

Following the Sept. 4 transition team meeting, members are looking at bringing one group back sooner than later.

“Full remote just doesn’t work for everybody. We decided to make a concerted effort to get those kids back in who aren’t performing — their grades are plummeting, work’s not good. Right now, principals are making contact with families and trying to urge them to take part in in-person a couple days a week.”

Ultimately, when and how Unit 1 students return to the classroom full time will be up to the school board, along with and restrictions/requirements from ISBE and IDPH.

“The board may decide to put our return to normal school plan back in place sooner rather than later,” Hayes said.

“There’s a lot of different plans out there. A lot of things seem to be working. It makes you second-guess yourself — are we doing what we need to be doing right now? There’s a lot of concerns with a balancing act in between of personal health and safety against education. There’s not a lot of easy decisions there.”

A touchy subject

And one of those hard decisions is one the school board has discussed for a while — constructing a new elementary building to replace older existing structures.

“This COVID thing has accelerated us needing to take a long hard look at combining the smaller schools (Franklin, Jefferson and Unity elementary). That is a touchy subject,” Hayes said.

Using each school as an example, he said class sizes this year are across the board for different grades — one Franklin class has 34 students, Jefferson seven and Unity 13.

“It’s not equitable. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” Hayes said. “We’ve been on a steady decline of enrollment for four to five years now. Now, all of the sudden, we have an alarming number of missing kids.”

At this point in the the 2019-20 school year, Unit 1 had 2027 students. This year, there are approximately 1866 — two-thirds of them doing partial in-person learning and a third on full remote.

“We believe we’ll get a lot of them back, but the question mark is what if we don’t? We’re going to be in trouble. I’m very concerned as superintendent.”

Of the 161 students Unit 1 has lost from its books, around 25 are students whose parents elected to homeschool due to COVID’s impact on scheduling. Most of those parents, Hayes said, say their children will return to school once things are back to normal.

“We’ve lost a lot of students. We understand why. And I don’t fault the parents who are making the choices they have,” he said. “That may put a little more pressure on us to get back to normal sooner rather than later. We might have to press the issue a little bit because it’s important for the long-term life of the school system.”

Two-thirds of Unit 1’s budget is funded by the State of Illinois and the federal government, with the remaining third coming from local property tax. The state’s funding is based on the unit’s enrollment numbers with the evidence-based funding formula.

“So if we lose over 150 students like we’re showing right now, that’s probably going to eventually cost around $750,0000 to $800,000 in revenue yearly — that’s a chunk of change,” Hayes said.

However, “we’re finding the others (136 students not on Unit 1’s books), especially at Metropolis Elementary and Brookport Elementary, are moving out of the region. We’re assuming it’s because of COVID and everything that happened. That’s concerning because we don’t feel like they’re coming back.

“It’s not that we want our schools to be as big as possible,” Hayes said. “Those are some financial numbers that play into our physical makeup. It starts getting into making decisions.

“What our physical make up is now worked very well for us in the ‘70s, ‘80s and even into the ‘90s, but now the population is different and in a large portion of the county, new, young families aren’t moving in. We’re going to have to take a good, long, hard look — which is why we were looking at that construction grant (in February) — because we really need to think about reorganizing because it’s not going to be financially possible to keep up our (current school building) setup if we keep losing students.”

Community assistance

Among the impacts of COVID-19 is the absence of volunteers in Unit 1 schools, especially on the elementary level. However, their assistance is coming through in a different way.

“People are stepping up to help out. All of our community — parents, grandparents, neighbors, friends — are helping out with remote learning, which just has all sorts of problems — it’s glitchy; it’s frustrating; it’s hard to provide tech support from a distance,” Hayes said. “I know it’s tough, but their willingness to get in there and try to make this happen and not fall too far behind, that’s been huge.”

Chromebooks have been distributed to all kindergarten through 12th-graders to assist with remote learning. In addition, the district also received an unexpected digital Equity Formula Grant from ISBE.

“We were allotted $140,000 to buy almost 300 more hot spots to loan out to families and almost 250 more Chromebooks,” Hayes said. “I think that’s going to be something that sticks around, not just for COVID. We’re going to try to continue to provide internet access as much as possible, which is not something we traditionally do as a school district.

“We’ve had good response with the Chromebooks.”

Moving forward

As Unit 1 continues into the 2020-21 school year, “the biggest way the community can help is just patience and flexibility from everybody,” Hayes said. “We really feel like we’re doing the best we can, but it is limited. I think a lot of the family members have stepped up to help with this crazy schedule — that’s a huge benefit because it’s hard on parents, this every-other-day thing.

“We’ve been trying to address parent concerns as much as possible, but there’s some things you just can’t fix right now. I’m hopeful we can go into a next step pretty soon.

“We’re just trying to get our kids back in school.”

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