Everyone attending Tuesday’s meeting of the Vandalia Board of Education was in agreement – they all want Vandalia students back in the classroom at least four days a week.
The issue is, how can that be accomplished.
More than a dozen parents were present for the meeting – held in the Vandalia Community High School gym, for social distancing purposes – to support the effort to move from the hybrid learning system currently in place.
Under the system, some students are in school on Mondays and Wednesdays, while others are present on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with Fridays being remote learning days.
Other students are at home for remote learning.
The district has formed a District COVID-19 Planning Team to further discuss steps that can be taken to get all students back into the schools at least four days.
That planning team – which consists of 32 members, including district administrators and teachers, school board members and community stakeholders – is meeting on Monday.
“We all want our kids back (in school), no matter what,” Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Garrison said.
The district, she said, “has barriers to work through.
“If we get this done next Monday, we’re ready to go,” Garrison said.
“We can’t let fear drive us, but we have to navigate it,” she said.
“Again, we all want our kids back – we have to figure out how to do it together,” Garrison said.
Board President Joe Lawson said, “I pushed to get us back four days a week, and I will continue to do that, and yet, there are some guidelines that Dr. Garrison has outlined that we need to meet.”
Among the parents speaking at Tuesday’s meeting was Jessica Blain, who read a prepared statement and included with that statements from some parents and teachers about how they feel the hybrid system is not being successful.
"When someone asks how our experience (is) so far with the hybrid learning this year, my answer is, honest and to the point – it’s not working … at all,” Blain said.
“There are so many students that need face to face interaction to be able to learn, to ask questions and listen to others’ questions,” she said.
Blain said that other school districts in the area, both larger and smaller, have students in the classroom four or five days a week.
She said that she has accepted Garrison’s invitation to be on the COVID-19 planning committee, “and the committee is doing good work.
“But, quite frankly, I do not think these kids have time for a multitude of committee meetings and board meetings to get this done,” Blain said.
“Over 50 percent of high school students are failing at least one class. Over 200 kids in the junior high are failing at least one class as well.
“Many students are failing multiple classes. Straight A students, honor students are getting C’s, D’s and F’s. The summer learning loss has now extended into fall,” she said.
“A solution needs reached in few weeks, not months,” she said.
Blain noted that “the biggest hurdle” is feeding students while sticking with the 50 people per room COVID-19 guideline.
She and Lisa Burnam suggested the installation of floor-to-ceiling partitions in cafeterias would help address that problem.
Another parent, John Lamonica, suggested using churches or renting high-quality, heated tents to address spacing issues.
Blain said, “There is a lot of gray area in the guidelines from ISBE and IDPH. But that’s just what they are – guidelines, not law.
“It’s time for us to get comfortable with the gray areas for our children. Their education and well being should be the top priority for the board of education,” she said.
“This is your decision – and your elected duty – to provide quality education for the children in our district.”
“I am in full support our administration and staff – they are all working hard. I know that they and the board want what’s best for our children,” Blain said.
“I also have heard from many teachers who are stressed to the max and want their kids back in their classrooms. Many are doing quadruple the normal workload, and we all know their normal workload is already too much.
“Ensuring that all young people have the opportunity to succeed at school and develop the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will allow them to contribute to society is at the heart of our education system,” Blain said.
“I am willing at this point to do about anything to fight for these children in our community. They need to be in school.
“Their education is suffering. It is having a negative impact on mental health and social skills,” she said.
“My children have a stable home life with parents who are willing to go above and beyond to help them as much as they can to succeed. My heart breaks for those children who do not have that, no one to help them through this hard time or help with homework,” Blain said.
“ They will not succeed. They will fail.
“And I feel like we are all failing them and our community by not pushing for what we all know is best,” she said.
Blain’s statement in its entirety is available on our website at www.leaderunion.com.
Blain included in her statement comments from six students and nine parents and grandparents.
A VCHS senior said, “I have come to find that hybrid learning is not the best way to learn. It seems like I get into the swing of online learning and then I am back at school.
“Then, I get used to school, and we are back to online learning. It’s too much of a disruption to go back and forth as we are.
“Personally, I would rather be completely online or completely at school,” that student said.
“I feel like I am only getting two days of learning a week,” a high school freshman said. “On the days I go (to school), we get new material; then on off days, it’s all homework that’s reviewing that material, nothing new.
“I am so stressed about getting all the assignments done that I am not retaining anything,” that student said.
Another parent, Therese Tate, asked that if the students are not allowed to be in the classroom, that the district work on “fixing some of the issues” that have arisen through hybrid learning.
“If there are some changes now we could make, get it done,” she said.
“(But) I don’t think they are actually learning,” Tate said.
Board member Joe Schaal said he feels that his elementary-age son is memorizing what he reads online instead of actually learning. “With the older kids, it has not affected them as much,” he said.
Three district building adminstrators – Stacy Mesnard at Vandalia Elementary School, Brian Holliday at Vandalia Junior High School and Randy Protz at VCHS – told parents that they have been making an effort to reach out and provide special help to those students who have been struggling under the hybrid model.
Board member Kevin Satterthwaite said, “We’ll figure out financially what we need to do.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said.
Everyone wants to get the children back into the classroom more often, and Satterthwaite said, “We are actively, actively trying to do that.”