What remote learning will look like this school year
Kitchen tables and family dens again will serve as desks and classrooms when many suburban schools begin classes remotely starting this week.
Districts that planned on resuming in-person classes either fully or under a hybrid model with health and safety protocols in place mostly have pivoted to go virtual amid concerns over rising COVID-19 cases and the practical challenges of reopening schools with proper social distancing.
"One of the things that was really difficult for us was implementing the daily protocols for students and staff -- symptoms screening, lunch without masks, managing social distancing in two very large high schools and having 50 students on a bus for about 30 minutes," said Dan Bridges, superintendent of Naperville Unit District 203.
The district initially considered a hybrid model allowing its 16,500 students to attend on alternating days. Instead, it will start e-learning Sept. 1 partly due to staffing limitations and challenges with separating groups of 50 students within school cafeterias while ensuring social distancing and mask wearing.
Unlike in the spring, teachers will be able to return to their classrooms to engage students at home through video conferencing platforms. The state requires a minimum of 2.5 hours of live instruction a day.
Schools in several districts are providing personal computing devices, such as Chromebooks and iPads, to bridge the divide between students and teachers, expanding wireless connectivity and supplying mobile hot spots so low-income families can get internet access, and offering day care support to working parents who need it.
Leaders in some districts not likely to reopen to in-school learning before October are planning to allow certain small groups into schools for regular services before others come back. Such groups include special needs students with Individualized Education Programs, English Language Learners and students who need additional supports.
For teachers, building relationships from a distance with students they have never met before might be the hardest adjustment, said Paul Hertel, superintendent of Des Plaines Elementary District 62, which begins remote learning Aug. 17 for 4,800 students in preschool through eighth grade.
"Teachers are going to be working on creative ways to create that bond," Hertel said. "It will be somewhat new and challenging for everyone."
Districts have been training teachers throughout the summer on how to deliver live lessons and keep students engaged.
"Last year, that was not necessarily the expectation," said David Wilm, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Wauconda Unit District 118 whose 4,500 students start the school year remotely Aug. 24. "It's hard to read facial expressions over the computer. You have to build community."
Educators assure remote learning will be different compared to spring when districts scrambled to provide distance learning while under lockdown without proper structures or training for teachers, and zero accountability for students.
"We understand that the spring was very traumatic for students, families and teachers," said Rosanne Williamson, assistant superintendent for educational services for Glenbrook High School District 225. Expectations for teachers and students will be greater when e-learning begins Aug. 19, she added.
"Grades will count. Attendance will be adhered to. There will be this expectation that teachers are teaching to mastery," she said. "What we are trying to achieve through this remote, electronic format is to, as much as possible, replicate the in-person experience."
The biggest change for students is teachers will monitor and record daily attendance and resume grading practices and assessments so districts can meet state and federal accountability requirements that were waived last spring.
"The difference is the rigor, the accountability, and the structure," said Adrian Talley, superintendent of Indian Prairie School District 204 which starts classes for about 27,000 students Sept. 3.
A greater challenge for teachers will be addressing students' social-emotional and mental health needs, said Brian Harris, superintendent of Barrington Unit District 220 whose roughly 8,600 students in preschool through 12th grade start classes Aug. 20.
"We are going to have to work hard to find opportunities for our kids to engage (with their peers) in a social way until we are able to bring them all back in our buildings," Harris said.
Resumption of some athletics and physical education classes will offer students some reprieve from social isolation. The Illinois High School Association is allowing limited sports practices -- boys and girls cross country, boys and girls golf, girls tennis and girls swimming -- to begin Monday.
"Teachers are adapting to include ways to engage students in fitness activities different from the traditional approach," said Mark Kovack, associate superintendent for student services for Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 whose roughly 12,000 students begin remote classes Aug. 13. "I would encourage parents to remain involved in their students' educational experiences. It is even more important now than ever before."