District 65 prepares for school reopening

Zachary Bahar, Executive Editor

As a result of COVID-19, every institution is being forced to reevaluate the fundamental aspects of its operations—District 65 (D65) is no different.

“[There have] been a lot of meetings, a lot of arguing, a lot of sweating, and a lot of tears as we’re struggling to design a new school for our students and our staff to make sure that everyone is safe and healthy and in a learning environment that’s engaging,” D65 Superintendent of Schools Devon Horton said. 

The core of the D65 plan, which will be implemented in all 18 D65 schools, was released on July 22, depicting a hybrid model with the majority of students learning remotely from home while others have in-person classes. 

Classes will begin remotely on Aug. 27 and will continue as such until at least Sept. 29. If conditions in the region are deemed safe, select students will then be allowed to return to a modified in-person school week while the remainder continue with remote learning. While all parents had the opportunity to opt their students into in-person learning, emphasis will be given to students with free or reduced lunch, emergent bilingual or special education students and any student who received an incomplete in the spring.

“[The plan was developed with] community engagement at a very high level…. We had union members representing all five of our unions; we had parents, administration, city representatives and clergymen. We started with that, and looking at other best practices in the area, and came up with four options that we really wanted to dive deeper into the discussion of how [those options] would work,” Horton said.

While D65 decided on a hybrid model, they did consider options ranging from completely in-person to completely remote and a variety of hybrids before making their decision. The process was also aided by staff and family input gathered in a series of surveys over the summer months. 

School is returning, but it will not be business as usual with numerous changes being implemented to ensure student and staff safety, success and wellbeing.

With regards to safety, schools will require masks, daily temperature checks and symptom screenings and weekly deep-cleanings of all campuses. In addition, desks will be at least 6 ft. apart, facing the same direction and student movement will be minimized. Staggered arrival and dismissal times are also possible. 

“There is no right way to do this, but there is a wrong way. We’ve been paying attention to Center for Disease Control guidelines; we’ve been partnering with consultants to make sure there’s enough space in classrooms and hallways; we’ve been working with NorthShore Hospital to potentially offer free COVID-19 testing to our staff…. We just don’t want to do this the wrong way,” Horton said.

While these changes are necessary, they may serve to limit student achievement due to a lack of connection. However, the district is acting to limit those effects by implementing a 1-to-1 student-technology program.

“We knew that we had given out close to 2,000 devices in the spring, and there was still the need for more devices,” Horton said. “Our community partners came through for us. They purchased quite a bit of technology, which we’re giving to students. We want to make sure we’re never in this situation again.”

Under the new technology plan, every student will receive an I-Pad or a Chromebook; these devices, alongside Google Classroom and Seesaw, will facilitate remote learning. Wi-Fi hotspots will also be available for families who need them.

“It was a conversation where we looked in the mirror and said, ‘Are we truly giving our students every opportunity to succeed by not being 1-to-1?’ and we agreed that it was not the best effort,” Horton said.

Staff have also been trained in and will be using two new curriculums this year: one devoted to math and one to social-emotional learning (SEL).

“We had a curriculum that [didn’t have videos prepared or options for Spanish speakers]… so, for a pilot year we are going over to Eureka Math, which does everything in English and Spanish and has a bunch of videos that are engaging,” Horton said. “We’re also going to have all teachers trained in SEL skills whether they’re remote or in-person. We know that our families, our staff, have been through a lot, and we want to make sure that the SEL work is there.”

In addition to implementing a new curriculum, families living in the 5th Ward will be able to attend in-person classes in spaces in or near the 5th Ward including YOU, Family Focus,  and Fleetwood-Jourdain to take STEM classes in collaboration with Northwestern.

“We know that school wasn’t so great for quite a few students prior to the pandemic,” Horton said. “Here’s an opportunity… to redo school a little bit, to make it a better experience for everyone.”