The Vandalia Board of Education approved on Tuesday a learning plan for the new school year, knowing full well that the plan could change any day before the start of the new year a month from now.
Prior to the approval of the three-option Return to Learn Reopening, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jennifer Garrison talked about a survey the district conducted to get parents’ feelings about a new school year during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The three options are:
• Return to Learn at 100% or 50% Capacity
• Vandals All-In Remote Learning
• Return to Learn Remote Only
The district received a little more than 300 responses to the survey, and for a return at either 100-percent or 50-percent capacity, 79.4 percent said they would have their children return, Garrison said.
She said that 20.6 respondents would choose the virtual school option.
For remote learning, Garrison said, the district would take advantage of community partnerships with local organizations such as the Family YMCA of Fayette County, and a little more than 50 percent of the respondents said they are interested in having that service available.
“I think the intriguing data for me was ‘What is your biggest concern related to COVID with our return to learn options?’” Garrison said.
Of those responding, she said, “37.3 responded face coverings, 23.5 mentioned (the) risk of exposure to COVID-19, 20.9 percent had no concerns,” she said.
Among the concerns expressed was “how are we going to police (this) and make sure, when we see noses exposed and that type of thing, how are we truly protecting our vulnerable population, including our students and staff members.
“Another chunk … was about the mental health of students and the socialization,” Garrison said.
“What I want to talk about is how we turn the situation into an opportunity to leverage our teachers, our support staff, our school board in our community partners, because right now, this survey shows we’re very divided as a community,” she said. “So, how do we come back together?
“Like Mr. (Brian) Kern (VJHS principal) said, if we truly believe in Vandalia ONE, now’s the time to demonstrate those philosophies, to add to that,” Garrison said.
“You know, the next few weeks, when registration goes live, there will be a lot of pushback. But again, I’m just going to continue to ask all of us to look at this as an opportunity, and how we get through this together, instead of dividing our community even more, so that is my ask.
“I’ve seen it around the table with the union the school board and the administration now it’s holding our hands to the parents and community to do the same thing,” Garrison said.
“And I know all the school board members have done all the reading and research, and the administration as well.
“So, before I dig deeper into our options, I just want to say, we’re not alone,” She said.
“We’ve already heard of multiple other local school districts and some that maybe aren’t so local, they’re going to be doing the same thing.
“So, we’re not on an island in terms of where we’re going from a thought process standpoint, and how we’re planning on educating our children.
“I think it’s a model that will be replicated majority throughout the state,” Garrison said.
She said the district had focus groups to discuss the reopening of school in the fall.
“The one thing that we took away from that is, parents want to know sooner rather than later what our options will be. So that really shifted our focus instead of waiting, to make the decision today.”
She said that as part of the project to come up with reopening options, district administrators measured square footages in the district’s three buildings, to determine the maximum number of students in areas such as the cafeteria and gym.
“Another question I’ve received is, what’s the difference between mandates and recommendations. From our attorney’s perspective, there’s no difference – a CDC recommendation is really a requirement.
“But from the black and white perspective, the face coverings are the Illinois Department of Public Health mandates,” Garrison said.
“The 50 (students)-per-space plan is through the Restore Illinois plan. And then it says social distancing is recommended,” she said.
“So, if there’s a recommendation at social distancing, (the Illinois Education Association), they’re recommending with the other national teachers union 12-15 in a classroom with social distancing.
The Pediatrics Association is recommending 3-feet spacing with masks, 6 feet without, she said.
“What is the one time that we’re not going to have face coverings on – it’s when we’re eating. So if you look at our buildings before COVID and look at our strategic planning phase was officially pre-COVID,” Garrison said.
She said the district was conducting a space utilization study prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that district administrators worked to figure out how many students can be in particular spaces.
Brian Holaday, VJHS assistant principal, said the maximum for the cafeteria and gym is 50 students, and about 300 of the school’s 560 students in the school at one time.
Stacy Mesnard, VES principal, estimates that they can get 322 of the students in the school.
She said they also could get 50 in the gym, but one problem with that is that the gym is used for indoor recess in inclement weather, “so that was not going to be an option at lunchtime.”
Garrison said that in developing options, the district also had to consider what to do in cases of confirmed positive or presumptive positive cases, what to do if a sibling of a student or students tests positive and students coming into the Okaw Area Vocational Center from other area high schools.
“So, when you roll all of that up into one … the one thing that we can be most certain about is starting school with the hybrid model,” Garrison said.
After the meeting, she said that the district is continuing to track the COVID-19 data in Fayette County and work with the Fayette County Health Department.
“Right now, we’re hoping to start in the hybrid/blended model, but if our numbers continue to go up – just like we saw three more positives today – then, yes, we’ll be having conversations about if we can even start at all in person,” she said.
Even in the event that Fayette County’s COVID-19 numbers look good, the district is “still at the mercy of the IEA and CDC (Centers for Disease Control),” she said, adding that decisions by the Illinois High School Association play a factor.
The district, she said, has to follow mandates and guidelines handed down from state and health officials.
Garrison said it is going to require staying in touch with those officials not only once a day, but “multiple times a day.
“We could, as a state, get shut down and be required to return to remote learning once again, and that’s why we’ve been proactive (about) at least having four plans in place,” she said.
“We are more prepared than we were, and is it going to be perfect? No. But, is it going to be better? Yes.”