Superintendent Says JSD 117 Can’t Ignore ISBE in Back to School Planning

By Jeremy Coumbes on July 2, 2020 at 10:37am

School districts in Illinois continue to work through plans for the return to in-person learning this fall.

The Illinois State Board of Education and Governor J.B. Pritzker announced the statewide plan last Tuesday ahead of the state’s move to Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois Plan, and already a few points in the plan have been adjusted.

District 117 Superintendent of Schools, Steve Ptacek says the state guidelines allow districts to tailor their own plans to fit their individual needs to an extent, however some parents calling for changes or to just ignore the ISBE requirements entirely are decisions that cannot be made at the district level.

I know some people want us to defy ISBE. I’ve got emails asking, ‘can we just ignore it and go our own way?’ People need to understand, they control a substantial amount of our funding. They control our certification of our teachers, of our staff. They control accreditation. Heck, ultimately, they could work with IHSA and they could say- ‘okay, you guys are going to defy it, then you’re out of sports.’

Now they’ve not threatened any of that, but the reality of it is, that we have to follow their guidelines. There’s not an option to not follow their guidelines. There could be severe consequences.”

Under the guidelines, personal protective equipment, including the use of masks will be required by all students and staff in schools. No more than 50 individuals will be allowed to gather in one space at a time, which now includes buses as long as all students are wearing masks; and social distancing will be required whenever possible.

Ptacek says even if the district were to defy the guidelines, the district could still be opening itself up to legal liabilities on the outside.

Let’s say we defied it and ISBE does nothing, and something happens and someone gets sick and somebody else says well they wouldn’t have been sick if they [District 117] would have followed the guidelines. Now, we’re talking about major lawsuits that come directly to the district, and that would have to come out of our funds to pay. You could break the district. So for multiple reasons, we cannot do that.”

On the other hand, I’ve actually been in a meeting where some schools were considering still going to an A/B day. The student alternate attendance days, because they wanted to keep the limits down, they wanted to keep six foot separation for health. And I went the other way and said, ‘Now you’re going to have to answer to the community and say to your community, that the guidelines allow me to bring them all in, but I’m not going to make that decision.’

I am not going to recommend to our school board that we limit that more than the guidelines either, because it’s not our job right now to get into that decision making process of guidelines. It’s our job to follow them.”

Ptacek says a plan for the district will be released by mid to late next week with one of the core principles of the plan is for students at all grade levels to be in the classroom as much as possible.

He says many activities will rotate into the classroom instead of the students moving around the school, such as in elementary grades, lunch will be brought to the students and things like art and P.E. classes will come to the room, allowing the primary teacher to rotate out for lunch and planning periods.

Ptacek says the district plan will likely continue to be somewhat fluid as more changes could come from the ISBE. He says the plan is not perfect, but there is contingency for those who cannot wear masks.

It’s not ideal. I mean, you’re talking about young kids with masks on in a classroom all day. So we are looking at providing live streaming e-learning in all of our classrooms, for those individuals unable to wear masks- and I don’t want to say this is absolute at this point in time- or other individuals who absolutely are against the masks.

If we can provide the technology they can sit at home and login live to classes, not the e-learning we did last year, but live to classes. We are looking at being able to provide that, and then if we have to go back to phase 3 and go back to online e-learning, our infrastructure will be set up for that.”

A town hall style Zoom meeting for district staff is planned for early next week where Ptacek will present the plan in order to get feedback from those in the classrooms and facilities to help make any adjustments they might see from their perspective. The plan will then be released to the public sometime late next week.