Three McHenry County school districts still plan to offer in-person options this fall

Riley School District 18 in Marengo, Marengo Union Elementary School District 165 and Marengo High School District 154 still are giving parents in-person and remote learning options for the upcoming school year.

They're the only three McHenry County-based public school districts to offer that choice as school district after school district has announced its decision to start the school year fully remote as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The three districts, all of which are located in the Marengo area, serve just shy of 2,000 students.

Both Marengo Union District 165 and Riley District 18 will be offering fully in-person options while Marengo High School District 154 approach will be a hybrid.

District 154's board approved its plan at its meeting Monday: Students will attend school in-person on alternating days to help keep classes small and facilitate social distancing. The "A" group will go to school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the B group will attend on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will be remote learning days for all students.

When students are not scheduled to be physically be in school, they will be expected to attend classes remotely.

As of Monday, 288 students were in group A, 291 were in group B and 103 students chose an all-remote option, Marengo Community High School Principal Angela Fink said.

“I think I’ve had five or six additional requests (to go fully remote, and) I anticipate getting a few more," Fink said on Monday. “That just means it lowers the class sizes in the other two cohort groups."

Private schools in the area, such as Immanuel Lutheran School in Crystal Lake, Marian Central High School in Woodstock and Trinity Oaks Christian Academy in Cary, have in-person learning included in their return to school plans as well.

“We have a smaller infrastructure, so we’re able to offer in-person instruction, which is a huge benefit for the students,” Immanuel Lutheran Principal John Meulendyke has previously said.

In-person instruction is the best way to deliver instruction to students, Marengo Union Elementary School District 165 Superintendent Lea Damisch said in an interview Monday.

"That's no disrespect to my colleagues and my friends in this county," Damisch said. "We're just very fortunate that we're just the right size that we can kind of think outside the box. ... We can adjust a lot faster than a lot of big schools."

District 18 Superintendent Christine Conkling pointed to a survey the district sent out earlier this year that found 94% of parents said they would send their children to school if the district came out with an in-person learning plan. District 165 heard the same thing from 65% of parents who responded to a survey there, Damisch said.

"That became our guiding force," Conkling said. "If parents wanted their students in school, we had to decide whether we could do that and how could we accomplish it?"

The need is there, Conkling said, especially with the lack of day care in the area. About 80% of students have been registered for in-person learning in District 18.

"We are a community of working families," Conkling said. "If their children aren’t in school, that poses a serious situation for many families. The availability of childcare is extremely limited in the Marengo area. Our economy is suffering already, and families will be feeling the effects of this soon if they aren’t already."

One of the biggest factors in District 18's ability to offer in-person learning was its size, about 300 students, according to state enrollment data.

District 18 was able to have fairly small class sizes this year, compared to other districts, especially with parents choosing the remote learning option, Conkling said.

"The task of putting everything in place would be a monumental challenge for bigger districts," she said.

District 165 will also have smaller class sizes, with the average being about 15 students, Damisch said.

To make sure class sizes stayed small, the district added extra class sections, with some teachers working in a different capacity than last year, Damisch said. The district also was able to shorten its school day and stagger the students' arrivals and dismissals.

Transportation also was a question, but half of the 65% of parents who said they would pick in-person learning indicated they would transport their kids to and from school instead of taking the bus, Damisch said. This made a big difference for district officials since it meant the school buses would have fewer students on them.

District 18 also has personal protective equipment supplies in place, Conkling said, and both students and staff will be screened.

"We will be working with the McHenry County Health Department to ensure we are following appropriate protocols," Conkling said. "We will rely on their guidance in planning for any health issues we may encounter."

District 18 will evaluate the plan during its implementation and make adjustments as needed based on student and staff's needs, Conkling said.

"There have to be ongoing discussions to evaluate the effectiveness of any plan," she said.

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