School supts. balance competing interests, shifting COVID guidelines — 1IL

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By Ted Cox

In the back and forth between students, parents, and teachers, with public health guidelines on the state and local level shifting constantly given the latest data in the coronavirus pandemic, the ones caught in the middle tend to be school superintendents.

They have to balance those sometimes competing interests, increasingly tense in the pandemic, and no one is having an easy time of it, according to Mark Klaisner, president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools.

“The thing I have to applaud is that every single conversation has been what’s best for kids,” Klaisner said, whether he’s been dealing with students, parents, teachers, school boards, public health officials, or fellow superintendents.

Otherwise, however, there’s been little unanimous agreement.

“We know that families want kids back in school,” Klaisner said Thursday. Teachers, however, are leery, with some unions threatening strikes — justifiably so, Klaisner somewhat grudgingly admitted — over changing work conditions without negotiation. The public health advice, meanwhile, shifts almost by the day if not the hour. Superintendents, he added, have been “caught in the middle with all of these tensions we’re talking about.”

On July 1, he said, “We were all fighting for how do we come back in person. We’ve got to get kids in.”

Just over a month later, that mood has changed. Chicago Public Schools announced they’ll open the first quarter with remote learning. In addition to heading the IARSS on the state level, Klaisner is also a regional superintendent in western Cook County, overseeing 38 districts and three special-ed co-ops, and he said only one is going back with full classroom instruction, with about a third opting for some sort of hybrid mix of classrooms and remote learning.

“In my region, remote has really become the default,” he said. “It’s very, very different from my colleagues downstate.

“Folks downstate are saying, ‘We’ve got the space for social distancing, class sizes of maybe 12, there are things that we can do that probably can’t happen in a more urban area like Rockford, Peoria, East St. Louis,’” Klaisner added.

Yet even there he knows one superintendent who was told by a board president, “If you require us to wear masks, you can look for a new job.”

“There are districts where boards have insisted that they will not require masks,” Klaisner said, although that might change given Gov. Pritzker’s recent move to impose fines on business scofflaws — including schools — that fail to require masks.

“Some of these things are playing out in the political arena, and that stinks,” Klaisner said. “Yes, there are regions where this has become political … and when this becomes political we have a problem.”

Klaisner trusts the governor to make decisions on the health data and the advice of doctors and scientists, but at the same time he knows that Pritzker has rejected a one-size-fits-all approach to public schools across the state.

He says he’s been asked, “When is the governor going to pull the trigger? Everybody’s going remote. That would make it so much easier.”

“I don’t tell the governor to do anything,” Klaisner quickly added, “but some people recognize that would take away the tension if there were just this mandate that everybody has to be remote. I don’t believe the governor is going to do that. He’s always talked about how we have a diverse state and 852 districts.”

Which leaves superintendents and educators to try to find creative solutions to complex problems on the fly. And the first problem, as always, is funding, even with Pritzker resisting calls for pandemic cuts with “flat-funded” schools in the new academic year.

“You’re going to get what you got last year,” Klaisner said. “We all know that flat funding is really a reduction,” given the realities not only of increased costs for preventive measures on health and safety in a pandemic, but also more mundane matters like step increases in teacher contracts. “Your expenditure’s going up 2 or 3 percent anyway, so it’s less money to deal with.”

That said, creative attempts to solve problems kept hitting unforeseen snags over the summer. Klaisner spoke of how “through July, I saw this mutual learning on sort of both sides of the table … lightbulbs going off on both sides.” For instance, the Illinois Department of Public Health advised schools to send sick students to the nurse — only to be informed that “half our schools don’t have nurses,” he said. On the other side, school officials were stunned to consider that they ought to have designated quarantine spaces. “All the creative options were falling by the wayside.”

Klaisner said he took part in a tabletop simulation exercise with IDPH and the Illinois State Board of Education on a number of issues, and came back thinking, “Oh my god, the only real option is probably going to be remote.”

Take school buses, many of which now have high seat backs for safety reasons — not unlike a booth. Could one student sit in each row? No, IDPH advised, 6 feet had to be maintained. Well, that means five buses doing what had previously been one route, and if you’re also asking drivers to check temperatures when kids get on “now we’ve got five buses and we’ve added an hour to the bus route,” Klaisner said.

Same thing checking temperatures at the school. “Clearly, that can’t happen at the front door of the school or you’ll never open.” So someone proposed a Google form online to be filled out by parents to send kids off to class. But what to do with a kid whose parents didn’t fill it out that day? And even if you can settle on protocols, new school employees have to be hired to process that deluge of online forms on a daily basis. As for contact tracing, what about families with siblings in different classes or even different schools? “The management of this is nearly insurmountable,” he added.

“It’s hugely expensive to follow the health guidelines,” Klaisner said. “When we as educators try to do everything we can to keep kids safe, it becomes cost-prohibitive.”

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August 14, 2020 at 06:45AM

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