Technology, curriculum, communication issues holding District 158 back, say teachers, parents

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The District 158 School Board met on Wednesday, October 21, to discuss issues related to re-opening in Phase 3. (Photo from www.d158.net)

Nearly 200 attend Zoom Board meeting regarding Phase 3 of re-opening plan in January

By Josh Bootsma

LANSING, Ill. (October 22, 2020) – The Lansing School District 158 Board Meeting on Wednesday, October 21, began with over an hour of public participation in the form of 21 letters and emails written to the Board about its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Written by teachers and parents, the letters provided a wide view of the issues, frustrations, and challenges that have become a reality for so many involved in education—students, parents, teachers, administrators, and Board members alike.

Sharing issues with the Board

PAID MESSAGE FROM AN ADVERTISING MEMBER —

The District 158 Board usually allots only a 30-minute period at the beginning of its meetings for public comments, but they voted on Wednesday to extend that period until all the letters were read, which took just over an hour. Nearly 200 people attended the virtual meeting.

District 158 Board discusses issues
The District 158 Board read 21 letters that described issues concerning the District’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Screenshot from 10.21.2020 Zoom meeting)

Excerpts from some of the letters are included below, some from teachers and some from parents. Each paragraph is from a different letter.

PAID MESSAGE FROM AN ADVERTISING MEMBER —
  • “Other school districts in Illinois are teaching all subjects every day. My child will be moving on to TF South next year and will be behind in learning compared to those at Heritage and others across the country. We are doing a disservice to our children by limiting their education. Putting the children first shouldn’t just be words, we need to actually do it. We can and need to do better for our children.”
  • “During the past eight months or more, the sense of family has changed to a point where it seems unhealthy. Yes, I agree the pandemic has a huge impact on the change but I also feel that the lack of communication, empathy, and true respect for the staff has taken a turn for the worse. … I have never seen teachers crying in the parking lot before and after school the way I have this year and the end of last year.”
  • “When we don’t provide equitable devices and curriculum for all our students, we are failing our mission. … I invited Dr. Schilling [and others] to come into my classroom for an entire day to see how this is working without devices and curriculum. Coming in for a five-minute pop-in doesn’t give you the true picture of what e-learning looks like. No one has come. … If we had proper curriculums, our students wouldn’t have to learn so many usernames and passwords. They would only have one for all of ELA and one for all of math. Currently my class has ten different usernames and passwords.”
  • “What we need most right now is effective communication, something that may seem simple to the eye but is so much more complex, and seemingly difficult for our district. … There are also many concerns and discussion that we’d like to have and we as teachers simply feel like we aren’t being heard.”
  • “There is still one major thing that is holding us back: lack of adequate technology. Teachers in grades four to eight very recently received new laptops computers. However, teachers in pre-k to third grades have still not received devices. [We] are still expected to use old student devices to teach them. These student-turned-teacher devices have a screen that is only 10″ x 6″. We have to run meetings online, teach lessons, plan, and create virtual lessons all while using a computer that has a screen that is smaller than a piece of notebook paper.”
  • “I have a sixth grader that, despite pulling a 4.0 this first quarter, is mentally declining. She is in constant tears. She has anxiety that she never had with school prior to remote learning. 70 minutes a week, notifications for assignments that never seem to end has become a dreaded reality. Friday, the last day of the quarter, should have been a relief. Immediately after turning in her assignments, she had a panic attack. After calming her down, she admitted that the assignments posted for the following week were the cause of the attack. She didn’t get a day to breath. The transition from fifth to sixth grade is hard enough in person. Making this transition through a computer has been a nightmare.”
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Nearly 200 people virtually attended Wednesday night’s meeting, hoping to resolve a number of issues before moving on to Phase 3. (Screenshot from 10.21.2020 Zoom meeting)
  • “Teachers are not happy. In fact, many of them are in a state of poor mental health right now. If you can walk through each building, sit in the classrooms, you see and feel what is really going on behind the scenes. I don’t how to fix it, or even if it is fixable, but I get the impression that everyone thinks all is going great when, in fact, that is so far from the truth.”
  • “Important changes and decisions have [been] made without any direct communication with those that are ultimately responsible—the teachers. … Often teachers hear about changes at the same time as parents, or even after parents have made comments publicly via Facebook. In these instances, we are unable to help with requests and concerns from the parents due to lack of information, which hurts the image of the district.”
  • “Our students also deserve access to vigorous reading and math curriculums. At the beginning of the year, we were told to use our creative abilities and our curriculum maps will guide us. I do everything short of tap dancing with my students but I am not a curriculum writer. Following standards and teaching them how I want to does not mean it’s necessarily the best practice. … Give us what we need to do our jobs. This is a slap in the face. Our students and staff deserve better.”
  • “‘Putting the children first’ is a quote we often say in this district. During this unprecedented time I have been faced with a decision of which children to put first—my own at home or my students here at school. … My own son needs a mom he can count on. So with tears in my eyes, I submitted the paperwork and explained to my parents why I would be missing one day a week to help my own child at home. … If the possibility to teach from home was an option, I could be available for all children, my own at home, and my own on the screen.”

Preparing for Phase 3 issues

After the public participation section of the meeting, the Board addressed some other business and then started a discussion of issues surrounding the re-opening plan, led by Dr. Nathan Schilling, District 158 Superintendent.

The purpose of the discussion was to get the Board’s thoughts on a list of assumptions that Schilling and his staff created to guide their policy-making as the District plans to move into Phase 3 of its re-opening plan. Schilling said the discussion on Wednesday night will influence the plan that he presents for final approval to the Board at its November 18 meeting.

Schilling proposed January 11, 2021, as the start date for the next phase, in which students can return to in-person school in larger numbers.

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The slight majority of District 158 parents want to return to school, based on a survey conducted by the District.

Principles for next phase

The six assumptions Schilling cited as being foundational to forming a Phase 3 re-opening plan are outlined below:

Choice

“We would like to recommend that parents have the opportunity to choose to keep their children at home or fully remote in Phase 3, and if that’s the case, the District will maintain some measure of e-learning for those students,” Schilling said. The Board agreed.

Remote choice is a long-term choice

Schilling explained that because of logistical issues involved with having remote students opt back in to in-person learning mid-quarter, families that make the choice to keep their kids at home will need to do so for the entirety of the third quarter. Children in-person, however, would not need to stay in-person if they need to learn at home for health or other reasons. The Board agreed with this tenet as well.

Weekly structure the same

Monday is currently a “staff available” day, where teachers and students can connect virtually, but teachers are not teaching lessons. Schilling said this “office hours” day is part of what they would like to keep in the next phase. The remaining days of the week are school days, the structure of which was addressed in some of the later principles.

Consistency with teachers and locations

Schilling explained this principle as wanting to keep children who are currently taught primarily by one teacher paired with that same teacher as students begin to return to on-site learning. He also suggested that for consistency students should generally stay in the same area in the same room for as much as possible throughout the day.

This principle generated discussion as some Board members noted that it might be best for some teachers to teach only remote students and others to teach only in-person students. Not doing so might mean teachers would need to teach both in-person and online students at the same time, something that one Board member, who is also a teacher, said is difficult to do.

On-site students would attend school on alternating days

Schilling mentioned the space available in school classrooms may not be enough to accommodate all the students who will return for in-person schooling while still respecting social distancing guidelines. If enough families want their children to return to school, he said, half of those students would need to come on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the other half would come on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Some Board members did not approve of this principle. One said, “Going two days a week—it’s the same they’re doing now, and it’s not enough at the Junior High. It’s not enough. They need to be there every day if they’re going to do it. … This is all a waste if it’s seriously going to be an alternating day.”

Schilling emphasized that having all in-person students at school every day would likely require a breakdown of social distancing and other health recommendations, depending on how many families elect in-person learning. He said that while Tuesday-Thursday kids are being taught in-person, both the Wednesday-Friday kids and the fully remote kids could be part of the class virtually. And on Wednesdays and Fridays, the Tuesday-Thursday kids and the fully remote kids would attend class virtually. Schilling called it a “true hybrid” model.

On-site instruction will focus on core subjects

In order to best use on-site time, Schilling recommended prioritizing core subjects like Math and English. More specialized classes could take place remotely.

The Board discussed the idea that if students end up at school for multiple hours at a time, it might be necessary to change up their day with a special class like art or music.

Technology issues

After the extensive discussion on what Phase 3 will look like, the Board discussed the technology issues that were mentioned in many of the public comment letters. Some of the older devices are not equipped to run the programs that are necessary to do school remotely. The Board clarified that other students who do not have laptops and need them are welcome to contact their school principal to receive a new laptop on loan. According to the District, there are still devices available to loan out.

New laptops for students have been ordered and, according to the District, should be arriving in early November. These laptops were first ordered in April, but due to demand, the dates for the devices’ arrival has been continually pushed back.

The same is true of computers for Pre-K—Third grade teachers. These were originally ordered in June, but the updated arrival is at the end of October. A number of letters from teachers mentioned the device challenges that teachers have had to wrestle with.

District 158 meeting schedule

The District 158 School Board meets every third Wednesday of the month. The next meeting will be on November 18. Currently the public is invited to attend the meetings only via Zoom. Agendas and the Zoom link will be available here.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. If you can pull if off – move to Indiana. All our kids are now in person learners and participating in sports. Unreal what is happening in Illinois. When it comes to college, just think how far behind this is causing the your kids to be, and taxes continue to rise. Get out before Lansing becomes a ghost town. The “Dr” principal at MJHS is a terrible leader, I’ll leave it at that.

  2. Great article, no outstanding on the issues presented to the Board at District 158. I sincerely hope that this will be the beginning of trying to fix the numerous issues identified.

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