Jacksonville School District 117 has not finalized plans for in-person learning for the upcoming school year. In a video released earlier in the day yesterday and reiterated last night at the school board’s July meeting, Superintendent Steve Ptacek says that the current plan for return to instruction is evolving almost daily: “Our plans are a ‘living document’ that will need to be modified as we get more information. Our entire landscape will evolve as we receive further guidance, await the results of lawsuits throughout the state, and even prepare for possible changes in our current Phasing model. Please be patient and understand that there are many, many questions we can’t yet answer, and none of our plans are final. They could be drastically changed.”
The school board has called for a special meeting at the end of the month of July to fully adopt plans for Fall instruction and go over any changes that take place. Ptacek also explained in the video the district’s role in the ever-evolving world of guidelines for in-person learning: “Our job is not to develop procedures or guidelines. We are not epidemiologists or infectious disease specialists. No one working for this district or on the board is an expert on how to keep people safe during a pandemic. I want to further highlight that the job of providing the expertise needed to develop procedures and guidelines necessary to keep people safe does not fall on our local health department…They are in our lane of implementing guidelines…The ISBE is a group of educators, they are not experts on COVID and are not the group that should be responsible for making our guidelines.
Schools, county health departments, and the IBSE have the role of following procedures and guidelines. That is our lane. The Illinois Department of Public Health is our State’s expert in making our guidelines. They have the capacity to work with the CDC, Medical Specialists, and other experts to develop the protocols designed to maximize our safety during this crisis.
The school guidance documents we are receiving are developed with a partnership between the ISBE and the IDPH. We will view all guidance from the IDPH as mandates, not as recommendations. This will not only help ensure the safety of our students but will help limit the district’s legal liability during this most likely upcoming litigious environment.”
Ptacek emphasized that the school must follow ISBE’s guidelines in the fall or financial consequences may occur: “One of the people that I am in connection with knows that there has been some discussion that there is a school district, and I don’t know which one, that has been very vocal about not following the guidelines that at least discussions have been had about what could happen if they do not follow the guidelines. It was eye-opening to the actual level of the impact that could happen to a district. I’m not saying that ISBE would move for that, but that is one reason we must follow guidelines. Of course, the other reason is legal liability. Insurance companies are not covering the pandemic, so the way that we can ensure the safety of our taxpayer money, which is in our fund balances, is that we are not found negligent in a lawsuit case.”
Under the current guidelines, Ptacek says Eisenhower Elementary’s open floor plan makes the school only able to open as a single, 50-person capacity building. Ptacek and the school board are currently exploring other options for Eisenhower students. Ptacek is going to ask IDPH for a ruling to possibly allow the school to use a larger format with more capacity: “The reality of it is that I don’t know if they are necessarily going to give that ruling at this point in time. If we don’t get that ruling, we have to look at other options. We could look at other facilities. People are bringing up MacMurray, ISD, ISVI, or some of the churches have enough space. We also could look at options such as the portable trailers that we brought out for Jacksonville Middle School. We will look at all of those and compile the information and present it to the board. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, but I do know those portable trailers cost us about $500,000 a couple of years ago when actually we got a used set. With how things are right now, I would expect the costs to be at least $700,000-$800,000 for that. That’s a concern when you go to the situation of what if we go to Phase 3 and go back to e-learning and that’s just wasted money. The argument can be that we are going to go back to Phase 4 sometime – well, that would mean more months that we are renting throughout that entire process. There aren’t any easy answers right now.”
Ptacek said during the school board meeting that Eisenhower might also possibly be used as a hub for e-learning for the district. He said the school could possibly house just teachers and be used for students who have decided to e-learn for the year due to specific reasons.
Ptacek says all options are on the table for Eisenhower until a ruling is given by IDPH. He says that the district will now wait for answers to multiple logistical questions from ISBE and IDPH for the remainder of the month. He says he will continue to provide updates with information for parents and students with posts of videos on social media accounts throughout the month until decisions are finalized.