First the ‘how,’ then the ‘when’

When there are pleas for more in-person learning for Vandalia students, Greta Krueger understands both the pros and cons.

As a parent of two students in the district, Krueger would like to see increased in-person learning. But, as a district administrator, Krueger also wants to keep students and staff safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Yeah, as a parent, you want those kids back (for more in-person learning),” Krueger said.
“It breaks my heart,” she said.
“As a parent, I live in this world,” she said.
“My oldest is a (high school) junior and he says, ‘Yeah, I want to be back, but that’s not even possible.
“So, it’s looking at the data and the facts, and putting your emotions aside for a minute and knowing that we’re doing the right thing.
“It’s a hard thing, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Krueger, who also has a child in the eighth grade.
Krueger made those comments during the initial meeting of a 32-member committee charged with determining whether students can be back in the classroom four days a week, and if it is, when that can happen.
Dr. Jennifer Garrison, the district superintendent, heads up a committee that includes district administrators, school board members, representatives of the Vandalia Unit Teachers Association and other teachers, district nurses and some parents.
“We will focus on the ‘how’ tonight,” Garrison told committee members.
“We must have a plan on the ‘how,’ then we can talk about the ‘when.’”
One problem with developing those plans, she said at the start of Monday’s meeting, is that the community’s COVID-19 situation is always changing.
Garrison said that she received a call on Sunday night about a fifth-grader testing positive.
“And we now have what is considered an outbreak in fifth grade,” she said. Early on Monday, parents of those students were notified of a classroom quarantine.
Garrison, who has a son in the elementary school, said that as any plan for a four-day week is discussed and developed, “I will try to stay as neutral as possible.
“We can acknowledge that people might be emotional,” she said, adding that she herself gets emotional over the situation.
Garrison presented to committee members on Tuesday a document that includes the aim of the committee, as well as non-negotiable points and barriers for each district building.
Under the aim category, Garrison listed three points:
• We believe that teachers are our· most valuable asset to increase student’s educational outcomes, and in-person instruction is our goal, if at all possible.
• All efforts shall be made to adhere to the Illinois Department of Public Health and Fayette County Health Department guidelines to avoid cancelations or mandated closures.
• Health guidelines will be top of mind when making decisions to establish a safe learning environment for students, staff and families.
Non-negotiable items include feeding students at district schools.
That item is one of the barriers to returning to in-school learning four days a week, and physical barriers is one of the possible solutions for at least one of three district buildings.
Another is getting on board numerous volunteers for lunchtime supervision.
Vandalia Elementary School Principal Stacy Mesnard said that in order to feed all students safely, they would be looking at feeding half of the students in the cafeteria and the other half in other areas, with possibilities including the gym, library, Little Theater and classrooms.
“It would be hard, but we can make that happen,” Mesnard said.
To make that happen, with two supervisors needed for each place where students eat, the school would need a number of volunteers.
And, to keep students spread out, they would likely have to have lunchtime recess in their classrooms.
Factoring into that situation is that lunchtime for teachers is their planning time.
The alternative to reaching out for volunteers is hiring temporary, part-time employees, with the number of 20 people needed for lunchtime supervision.
Having that supervision is essential, said district nurse Brittany White.
“That terrifies me, not having eyes on the kids,” White said.
Later in the meeting, a parent on the committee, James Lamonica, was involved in the discussion about having guidelines and job descriptions if the district uses volunteers.
Mesnard said that with the pandemic, she’s spending a lot of time looking for substitute teachers to fill in for staff members who test positive or are quarantined.
With volunteers, the same situation could arise, with some needed for others who are unable to serve.
“If you need 20 volunteers, you’d better have 40,” said Darin Dugan, a teacher at the Okaw Area Vocational Center.
Michelle Kelly, a junior high teacher, said something to consider is, “We’re putting a lot on the volunteers.
“Can we rely on them 100 percent?” she said, explaining that some of the volunteers might be grandparents who at some point would be needed to stay home with grandchildren who are quarantined.
It was at that point that Garrison referred to the handout section listing COVID-19 data for like-sized districts in this area.
On that list, Vandalia has had 19 students and 17 staff members test positive. Greenville had 32 students and 23 staff members with positive tests.
Other districts had much less: Pana-six students, 1 staff; Hillsboro-13 students, 2 staff; and Litchfield-5 positive, 2 staff.
“It’s in our community,” Garrison said. “Data shows that we have community spread.
“To be honest, it can come down to when Vandalia can do this (handle spread). Because, if not, it puts our staff at risk,” Garrison said.
Looking at such figures, board member Ryan Lewis said, “the hybrid model gives us more stability right, now.”
Shayla Eyman, who said she has been unable to go to work since the start of the pandemic, agreed.
“I think what we’re doing is right now,” she said about the use of the hybrid model. “Something is better than nothing.”
Eyman also brought up the handling of families with more than one student when one child is quarantined and others are not. If the student who is quarantined could be a carrier, she said, the sibling still going to school could cause spread.
In addition to the lunchtime issue, VES would have to find a solution for at least 200 students gathered from 7:30-8 a.m., and one for recess during inclement weather.
At the junior high, Principal Brian Kern said they can accommodate about 50 kids in the cafeteria for lunch, about 36 in the multi-purpose room and about 50 in the gym.
He believes that with barriers/divided, they might be able to handle up to 150 students in the gym.
As with VES, the junior high would have to have a solution for after-lunch recess.
“If they’re not here (in the cafeteria), they’re somewhere else,” Kern said, noting that classroom recess is also an option at VJHS.
He said that he and Assistant Principal Brian Holliday have “tried our best to come up with solutions within the confines of the collective bargaining agreement with the teachers.
“I feel like one of my biggest jobs is to support our teachers, and (we’re asking) them to do something that, quite frankly, a lot of them are uncomfortable doing.
“It makes them uncomfortable, not in a complaining way, not in a complaining way other than I have a lot of young teachers in the building, they’re starting families.
“They’re worried about taking it home to their little ones. And when you’re asking them to put, now, 20-24 kids in the classroom, and me saying there’s no way you’re gonna be able to social distance 6 feet, without masks, while you eat, makes me uncomfortable,” Kern said.
About the teachers, Kim Perkins, a vocational center teacher who currently serves as president of the teachers’ union, said, “Some are OK coming back 100 percent, some have underlying conditions” that make them more susceptible to COVID-19.
“If the teachers aren’t watching the kids,” Kern said, “it’s got to be a volunteer situation.” He said they would probably need 10-15 volunteers for VJHS alone.
After lunch recess is also an issue at the junior high, especially when there’s inclement weather, and a need to put 300 students someplace, he said.
With dividers being a way to help get more students into an area, at both VES and VJHS, having adequate ventilation in all areas could be an issue.
A member of the committee, Zac Stombaugh of Stombaugh’s Heating & Air Conditioning, agreed to study that issue.
At the high school, lunchtime is not as much of an issue.
Principal Randy Protz pointed out that they don’t have recess, and that in order to serve students lunch, they can use the cafeteria and the gym, with classrooms being an option.
“Full-bore PE is a problem for us” if the gym floor has to be used for lunch, Protz said.
He said that if they could get approval, in order to use the gym floor for physical education classes, an option may be to put some students in the south balcony and some in the north balcony.
Lunchtime supervision is also an issue at the high school, as are class transition and restroom times, and students would be unable to have labs due to not enough equipment for each student.
Garrison noted in her handout that the high school has 21 classrooms in which it would not be able to maintain the minimum 3-feet separation.
Jessie Blain, a parent who addressed the school board during last week’s regular meeting, said that hearing all of the information given during the planning committee meeting helps to better understand the issues that the district faces with four-day, in-person learning.
Communicating that kind of information to all parents is important, several people mentioned.
And, while Blain, has a better feel of what more in-person learning would require, she repeated a concern she voiced last week.
“A significant number of kids are failing – what do we do about that?” Blain said.
Garrison said that the district has been watching that issue “from the beginning” of the pandemic.
Both at last week’s board meeting, and on Tuesday, it was repeated that efforts are being made at all buildings to giving more individualized attention to those students having problems and meeting with parents as necessary.
Kern said that on Fridays, teachers will be at the school to help students, and that they believe that just letting that be known will address that situation.
“We’re hoping that will help, that when it’s announced, some students will be, ‘I don’t want to come on Fridays, so I’d better pick it up,” Kern said.
He agrees that that is an issue that needs to be addressed.
“In the first quarter, the number of kids failing was alarming, and it was kids who have never failed,” he said. “That’s real.”
Garrison said she feels that some assistance being available to students is being under-utilized, referring to the Family YMCA of Fayette County and Unity Baptist Church making their facilities available for students needing to have WiFi.
The planning committee is meeting again in two weeks, to both continue discussions on how four-day learning might be accomplished and also begin talking about when that might possibly be accomplished.
At the outset of Tuesday’s meeting, Garrison said that it will take everyone to deal with the pandemic. “We’re all in this together.
“We’re a family – good, bad and ugly,” she said.
The district, she said, wants to provide the best learning possible during the pandemic, but stressed that the health and safety of the students and staff is of primary importance.
“Zero deaths is what’s acceptable to me – zero,” Garrison said.

Members of the Vandalia School District’s planning committee discussing the possibility of more in-person learning met for the first time on Monday at the junior high.

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