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Springfield School Board Votes For Remote Start

School District 186 Board meets by Zoom.

The Springfield School District 186 board reconsidered Thursday night its decision of how to start the school year. In an emergency meeting, the board voted 5-2 for nearly all students to begin online just over a week after they voted to move forward with a plan that offered both in-person and online options.

Of the 12,197 students signed up for school, about half were registered for remote only and the other half for a hybrid option – attending two days a week in person and three online.

The decision Thursday night now means nearly all students will attend class from behind a computer screen for the first quarter.

Springfield Superintendent Jennifer Gill said a rising positivity rate of COVID-19 tests in the county is one reason for the decision. The positivity rate was 6.2% for last week, according to numbers tracked by the Illinois Department of Public Health. 

“Although we have a strong plan in place to offer the hybrid model for those families who wish to return, we must also consider the impact that this might likely have on our community spread,” Gill said.

She also worried that having students and teachers attend in-person, be screened for COVID-19 symptoms and possibly need to get tested might “drain” testing resources in the county.

There are concerns that testing avaiablity in the county is not sufficient to meet the need when students and teachers return to school.

The resolution allows for students with high needs, such as three- and four-year-olds, those with developmental delays and English language learners, to attend in-person in small groups.

The board changed the original proposal that would have evaluated the local trends twice a month at every meeting. Instead, students will learn online until the end of the first quarter on October 26.

However, school board president Scott McFarland noted the board could vote to change that, and said Gill indicated in-person learning under the hybrid model could begin as soon as two weeks after that decision.

McFarland said he wanted to work with Sangamon County Department of Public Health to get updates on trends in new cases at each meeting, as some board members complained of lack of information on spread of COVID-19.

“Maybe they can help us work on a metric level,” said board member Micah Miller. “That's going to be something we're comfortable with because we talked about when it's safe to come back when it's not safe, but we're going to have to start drilling down to an actual number.”

Board member Tiffany Mathis, who voted against the remote-only start, argued the board had information in the from IDPH and the governor's office, including reopening plans and plan to address resurgence of the disease. The region is in the Phase 4 of the reopening plan, where gatherings of 50 or fewer people are allowed with proper social distancing and mask wearing.

Mathis said the way she understood the school district’s plan, they could meet those standards. She offered an amendment to have only high-schoolers start remotely, but it failed for lack of a second. She said she had concerns about childcare needs if students must attend from home. 

“The kids don't disappear because we went remote,” she said. “They have to go somewhere. They don't just go away. We've got real issues outside of if everybody should be remote or not. Parents are working.”

Amber Loewe, the parent of a sixth grader, voiced similar concerns during the public comment period.

“School is free, and it's where our children go during the day. Without that option to be there in person. I mean, it compromises so many households on so many levels,” she said.

Meanwhile, Ryan Renfro, who is a school employee, advocated for an all online start.

“Even if it comes down to one student or one staff member getting COVID-19 that results in their death or lasting health effects. The decision to go back was wrong. It’s not worth it,” he said.

The school board will convene Monday for its regularly scheduled meeting to discuss union contracts with teachers and how new plans affect working conditions.

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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