JSD 117 Moves Start A Week Forward. Plans For Hybrid In-Person, E-Learning Being Finalized

By Benjamin Cox on July 29, 2020 at 6:22pm

Jacksonville School District 117 will begin the school year a week later than scheduled as district teachers will get a week to prepare for a return to in-person learning and possibly e-learning initiatives.

Superintendent Steve Ptacek announced on his Facebook Page at 4AM Tuesday morning at the delayed start will be Monday, August 24th. Ptacek also said in the announcement that he was resistant to moving the district to a full e-learning plan like many surrounding districts have done. Ptacek believes that going to full e-learning creates inequity across the community, results in a substantial loss of effective instruction for students, and puts many parents through tremendous hardship.

Ptacek said on AM1180 WLDS’ “What’s on Your Mind” Monday that the decision to move to full in-person learning, e-learning or a hybrid plan needed extra time for the school board to consider a final decision. He said that many of the serious decisions in district’s recent past have had lengthy public meetings with full input from the community before the board made their final determinations.

The district has recently being working on comprehensive plans for the purchase of extra technology to accommodate e-learning in all of the district’s classrooms should the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Department of Public Health determine that all districts be mandated to e-learning. He says other minor decisions surrounding school bus route logistics and distribution of lunches during school are also being determined by several district officials.

A special session of the school board was held on Tuesday night at Jacksonville Middle School’s auditorium for discussion about the district’s plans for the Fall. Ptacek started the session, which was livestreamed on the district’s website, by reiterating that as many students in the district need to return to in-person learning as possible. He said that a full e-learning initiative would do irreparable harm to student’s development and mental health, as well as their educational progress.

Several of the district’s elementary school teachers and local union representatives were in attendance at the meeting and voiced concerns about the district’s July 7th guidance about live-streaming classrooms, especially for Kindergarten through 5th Grade classrooms. Fourth Grade Lincoln Elementary School Teacher Janean Mays raised the question that elementary students would have difficulty maintaining focus in an e-learning environment and quite possibly miss crucial educational instruction if they were asked to be on a laptop or device livestreaming for 8 hours a day. Mays also had concerns about livestreaming feeds being recorded by students or parents, and then having clips of the video being used out of context on social media as a way to criticize teachers. Mays suggested that teachers could possibly do pre-recorded lessons for each learning day for students and have them uploaded to the schools’ websites so that students can play the lessons at will.

Ptacek went on to address the open-concept layout of Eisenhower Elementary being possibly utilized as a hub for e-learning in the district. He said that a current plan is in place instead with an engineer to utilize all space in the building, including non-traditional classroom space like the teacher’s lounge, by erecting temporary walls throughout the building for a cost of $70,000-$80,000. Ptacek said that a recent quote for purchasing or renting temporary trailers for the site came in at a cost over $1 million. Ptacek said that moving all students out of Eisenhower to other districts would possibly create logistical problems for parents and the district, and may open the district to liability issues due to overcrowding at other district schools.

After continued dialogue with the audience, Ptacek says some questions from the audience prompted a possible solution to the livestreaming and Eisenhower issues: “There is going to be on the surface some questions about why the district’s teachers are concerned about livestreaming of their classes. The [teachers in attendance] brought up some really good ideas that I needed to consider more, and I think in the long run, we came up with a potential solution. Somebody from the audience prompted that a little bit with a lot of ideas. The question that took us down the path of we don’t have to not utilizing actual classrooms for e-learning for teachers that we can utilize other space. We don’t have to have the same building codes that students are in as opposed to a place with teachers and no students in it. There were a lot of good discussions that went on, and it’s come down to the thought of [District 117] paying either some retired teachers or stipends to our current teachers to record lessons and then set up time where they are available to answer questions through Google Hangout or Google Meets, and doing that remotely.”

Ptacek says the idea of the pre-recorded lessons may be the best route to go both financially and educationally for the district in the long run: “Quite honestly, I see that parents for our younger kids can now view the recordings and go over those recordings with their kids over and over again versus having them sit there and watch just one livestream where the teacher is not actively involved, keeping their focus on the lesson because they are in another room. I think it might be more instructionally sound also, and that was great input from this staff. The big benefit of it is, it doesn’t put our parents out at all. It will cost [the district] some money to either hire a teacher per grade level or pay a stipend to a current teacher to record at night or on their weekends. Right now, if I can get away with just money [issues] that is just making my staff’s job easier, answering up to the needs of my parents, offering maybe a better e-learning opportunity that I had in my mind. I think tonight’s session was a big win.”

Ptacek will finalize the e-learning plan with the district’s teachers in a meeting Monday afternoon, and the plan will then be sent out to district parents after the meeting.

The school board will hold another special session on Thursday, August 6th at 5:30PM to make final approval of the district’s plans.

Ptacek said in communication after the special session on Tuesday night that parents will have a window to make a choice of either having their student return to in-person learning or full remote e-learning for the year.

In-person learning will follow the guidance of the district issued on July 7th and be updated as ISBE and IDPH update their guidelines and other mitigating factors. Elementary schools will operate on a regular schedule, while Jacksonville Middle School and Jacksonville High School will attend on shortened 5-hour per day schedules.

A survey will be sent out to parents after the August 6th meeting asking which choice they will make for their student in the Fall. It will allow the district to gather numbers and estimate how to safely proportion classes as well as make plans for their e-learning objectives. Ptacek says it will be imperative that every family who has a child in the district to answer the survey so that the district can plan accordingly.