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Mask enforcement, social distancing a concern for DeKalb teachers expected to return to classrooms this fall

DeKALB – Al Gonzales has been teaching math for 13 years at DeKalb High School.

Gonzales is usually excited for the start of a new school year. He said that thinking about returning to school in the fall during the COVID-19 pandemic “is scary and gives me a great deal of anxiety.”

Gonzales has a pre-existing health condition and has a compromised immune system. He has been self-quarantining since March 13, only leaving the house for essentials.

“My doctor told me not be around people who are not wearing masks,” Gonzales said. “Masks are strongly encouraged, but how will the school follow through with that? How will it be enforced? The focus is on the students, but will teachers, assistants, other faculty and staff, parents coming into the building, have the expectation to wear a mask?”

The DeKalb School District 428 school board this week announced the draft version of their fall re-entry plan, which would include a blend of in-person and remote learning options for students, who would attend school in person twice a week (high schoolers for half days and middle and elementary schoolers for full days). The board expects continue discussion of the plan at their meeting Tuesday set for 7 p.m. in the DHS auditorium.

At-home learning options will be available for parents who chose to keep their children home.

Interim Superintendent Griff Powell said Tuesday administrators are still working through details on how to accommodate educators with health concerns, though the plan does not detail that as of yet, and only lays out expectations for limiting students’ virus exposure risk, not staff or administrators.

Mask-wearing would be required by the D-428 plan as it stands, however, Gonzales said he still worries about those not willing to follow the rules, and has concerns not only about his health, but also his job.

“I don’t see a scenario for me to return to the building with circumstances being what they are currently,” Gonzales said. “With e-learning, maybe my job expectations will be shifted to support other teachers. Hopefully, I still am going to be employed this fall.”

Gonzales is one of the about 450 members of the DeKalb Classroom Teachers’ Association (DCTA).

The DCTA stated that it “remains committed to providing a quality education to all children that minimizes risk during the pandemic. We are listening and offering feedback to district administration to develop a plan that helps our staff, students, families and our community feel as safe as possible.”

Shawn LaPlante, co-president of the DCTA and eighth grade math teacher at Huntley Middle School, said teachers will face many challenges for in-person school in the fall, including large class sizes, the difficulty of physically distancing inside the classroom, mask-wearing and accurate assessments of students’ learning.

“Not one teacher would say remote learning is optimal, which is really challenging about what we’re going through right now,” LaPlante said. “There’s also loose guidelines and a lot of questions. We’re all going back into the classroom without a direct plan. … We have teachers and students that can’t return to school in the current climate. Then we wonder if anyone should return to school if the pandemic is still occurring. It’s a balancing act of what is truly appropriate for the health, safety and education of our union members, students, families and the DeKalb community.”

Nikki Schmidt, a fifth grade teacher at Littlejohn Elementary School, said that she is nervous yet excited to return to school in the fall.

“The beginning of a new year is always exciting because you get to meet all of your students,” Schmidt said. “It was really sad on March 13 to say goodbye to my students without knowing it was a final goodbye. We had a field day, science fairs and field trips planned. I really miss my students and co-workers. I’m excited to be able to return to school, but it’s important we do it in a slow process that will protect staff, students and our families.”

Schmidt said that the daily routine of a school day will be different, including the unknowns of what physical education, recess and a lunch hour might look like.

“I think that it’s going to be a learning curve for everybody,” Schmidt said. “What we really need to focus on is communication between families and schools so everyone is on the same page, so it looks as much as a normal, engaging school day as possible while we are keeping everyone’s health and safety in mind.”

Back to school in DeKalb

The scheduled first day of school in DeKalb School District 428 is Wednesday, Aug. 19, for students in first through twelfth grades and Monday, Aug. 24, for kindergartners.

The initial back to school plan was presented at the DeKalb School District 428 Board of Education meeting on July 14. The administration, interim superintendents and teachers have been discussing more details of the plan, and it will be presented again at the board meeting on July 21. On July 22, a parent survey will be sent regarding the revised plan. On July 29, a more finalized plan will be sent to parents. On July 31, a final survey will be sent to parents, identifying which families opt for at-home learning instead of a blend of in-person learning at school and remote learning.

Illinois school rules

On Tuesday, Gov. JB Pritzker announced students may return to the classroom this fall and laid out guidelines all schools should follow to maximize in-person instruction and minimize health and safety.

The Illinois Department of Public Health requirements for schools to re-open in Phase 4 of Gov. Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan include requiring the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), including face coverings, prohibiting more than 50 individuals from gathering on one space, requiring social distancing whenever possible, conducting symptom screenings and temperature checks and increasing schoolwide cleaning and disinfection.

The Illinois Emergency Management Agency will provide public K-12 districts in Illinois with 2.5 million cloth face masks, enough for all students and staff.

Gov. Pritzker, along with the state health director and the state superintendent, filed a lawsuit Thursday requiring face coverings in schools.

“As a father, I would not send my children to a school where face coverings are not required because the science is clear: face coverings are critical to prevent the spread of coronavirus,” Pritzker said in a statement Thursday.

“The guidance focuses on keeping students, teachers and families healthy and safe,” Gov. Pritzker said in a press release. “School districts and institutions of higher education across Illinois will face unique challenges in how they’ll operate within their communities.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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