Huntley Community School District 158 has revised its fall reopening plans and will now start the 2020-21 school year with remote learning.
In its original re-opening plan, District 158 gave students in pre-K through sixth grade the option for in-person traditional learning five days a week, while students in seventh grade, eighth grade and high school were to operate under a hybrid style, blending in-person and remote learning.
But now, according to a letter sent Friday to families by Superintendent Scott Rowe, the school year will begin with remote learning, which will tentatively last through at least Oct. 16. Remote learning will be extended if needed.
The first day of remote attendance is set for Friday, Aug. 21.
Teachers will work from their school classrooms where they full access to teaching resources and technology, Rowe said. Plans for small groups that will rotate in for limited in-person experiences are in the works by a task force made up of district administration and representatives from the teachers union.
"We understand that this decision will cause substantial disruption to the lives of many, and that reality is painful to all involved," Rowe said in the letter. "Unfortunately, the reality we are facing is one of life and death."
"After holding clarifying conversations with the McHenry County COVID-19 Task Force, other area school districts, and our own teachers’ and support staff unions, we reached the indelible conclusion that the risk of potentially lethal transmission within schools was too high—in fact, it was virtually inevitable," he continued.
Rowe pointed to the "ongoing confusion with health guidelines, unsolvable challenges in tackling the complexity of this issue, and continued holdups in the supply chain for [personal protective equipment] and other safety implements" as driving the decision.
"As evidenced by the shift to remote learning announced by nearly every other comparable area district, schools have been tasked with doing the impossible," Rowe said. "An honest evaluation of what is possible under these circumstances leads to no other conclusion."
District 158 has relied on state and federal public health and education agencies for guidance, Rowe said in the letter.
"From the onset, this guidance contained information that in many ways appeared contradictory and conflicting," he said. "Over time, these contradictions have not been resolved, only intensified, and we have continued to receive conflicting answers on vital safety questions on different days and from different sources.
"This is not to demonize these agencies, who are doing their best with incomplete information, as are we all," he continued. "It has simply become clear in recent days that there is too much unknown about this highly contagious, deadly virus to have full confidence in any safety precautions."
Though there was a proposal to evolve the district's initial plans to extend hybrid learning into sixth grade, these changes would still have had detrimental effects on the quality of education, and been insufficient to bring the district to an acceptable level of compliance with health guidelines.
District 158's remote learning plan has undergone significant changes since it was implemented last spring when schools were first mandated to close in-person learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This "2.0" plan, as Rowe called it, addresses many inadequacies experienced last year.
This time, attendance and grading procedures will follow traditional practices and teachers will be available for the duration of the regularly scheduled school day, he said. Students will also receive substantial live, two-way video instruction from teachers.
Elementary students will get five hours of learning activities daily, including weekly engagement in music, art, physical education, and 5th grade band or orchestra.
Plans are under development how Chromebooks will be distributed in a safe way and those plans will be communicated when complete, Rowe said.
More information about this change will be presented at school board's Committee of the Whole meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. Aug. 6.
The meeting will be held in-person in the district office, 650 Dr. John Burkey Drive. Attendance will be limited to 50. It can also viewed remotely on the district's YouTube channel.