2 Marengo school districts returned to in-person learning: Here's how they are doing so far

Students, staff adjusting well to a new normal, leaders say

Although most of McHenry County is starting the school year remotely, all three school districts in Marengo and Union chose to return to in-person learning, which their administrators said has been a whole new learning experience for themselves and the students.

Marengo Union Elementary School District 165 Superintendent Lea Damisch said the first day back at school Monday was wonderful and only a tad hectic as students, staff and parents adjusted to a new normal.

"It's just a matter of resetting those routines, and the kids were awesome today,” Damisch said. "I have sent out so many information blasts to parents ... I’m sure they're like, ‘Oh, no, she's texting us at 6 a.m.? Now what?’”

From symptom surveys to face masks to social distancing, staff has been working tirelessly to ensure the safety of the students, Damisch said, adding that contrary to what some might think, the district's younger students have been some of the easiest to get on board with the new changes.

“We've made it – I don't want to say cute, but – we've made it cute,” she said.

To direct students on where to stand or sit while in school buildings, staff have placed large stickers on the floor designed to match each school's mascot, Damisch said. That way, maintaining a safe distance becomes a game for kids as they hop along a trail of paw stickers or big purple dots.

“In the middle schools, we put paws on the lockers and on the ground so they know which locker to go to,” she said. “It's kind of like Twister, but it’s little paws.”

Marengo High School District 154 Superintendent David Engelbrecht said in a statement Tuesday that things are perhaps a bit less cute in the district, but they nevertheless have been going well so far.

The high school resumed classes Aug. 13, so its students and staff have had more time to get accustomed to school in the era of COVID-19. District 154 is using a hybrid learning approach in which students alternate between remote learning and in-person classes in two rotating groups, Engelbrecht said.

This significantly reduces the number of students in the building at once but requires teachers to teach in person and record themselves for their remote students at the same time, according to Engelbrecht's statement.

"Our teachers are very resilient [in] helping students adapt quickly to the new schedule," he said.

District 165 schools also are offering a remote learning option for parents who don't feel comfortable sending their kids back to school in person, Damisch said. About one-third of parents chose the remote learning option, and some parents chose to pull their students from the district to home-school them instead.

“We respect that, so anything that they need in the way of home-schooling support ... we will provide all that for them,” Damisch said. “I think for a lot of them they have to work around their work schedule because they may have to work an early shift, and they can’t log on in the morning when school starts.”

Of the parents who sent their kids back in person, 40% opted to drive them to and from school rather than sending them on the bus, which Damisch said is good for capacity limits but created quite the commotion in the parking lot on the first day of school.

The district's schools will use staggered dismissal times to try to avoid traffic jams, she said. Damisch has asked for patience as the district continues to work through all of the logistics associated with transportation.

Marengo's third district, Riley School District 18, is set to start its school year Monday.

It has only one school and less than 300 students, but being small hasn't made the reopening process any less challenging, District 18 Superintendent Christine Conkling said in a statement Tuesday.

"[It] just makes it more doable," Conkling said. "You still have to take all the same precautions and put safeguards in place no matter how many students you have."

At Riley, which serves kindergartners through eighth graders, the average class size is 15 students, which has made it a bit easier to set up socially distant seating in classrooms, Conkling said in the statement.

For District 165, Lotus Elementary and Grant Intermediate schools keep students in their homerooms all day while Marengo Middle School has teachers switch classrooms instead of the students, Damisch said. This limits the scope of contact tracing needed if one of the district's students or staff were to test positive for COVID-19.

Students also eat lunch in their classrooms to avoid congregate dining, she said.

At Marengo High School, students are allowed to eat lunch together, but staff have swapped out the lunch tables for desks spaced 10 feet apart, Engelbrecht said.

"We respond to the situations we are put in," Conkling said in the statement. "I have an amazing staff that always steps up and does what is needed."

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