NORTHFIELD, IL — Administrators quickly sought to clarify a new school board policy adopted last week that limits access to remote learning for students quarantining for non-medical reasons after it prompted concern among some Sunset Ridge School District 29 families.
On Sept. 15, the District 29 board approved a recommendation from its coronavirus reopening task force regarding students who have travelled to states that have higher per capita rates of COVID-19 than the Chicago area, according to a letter Superintendent Ed Stange sent to families and staff the following day.
"Students that are required to quarantine for travel-related reasons," Stange said, describing the new policy, "will not be permitted to access remote learning during the travel or quarantine period."
In mid-July, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady a mandatory, if unenforced, order requiring anyone who spends the night in any of a regularly updated list of states for non-essential reasons to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Chicago.
Likewise, the Cook County Department of Public Health issued a matching, non-binding recommendation, covering all states with a rate of 15 or more new daily COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. As of Tuesday, the quarantine list includes 18 states and Puerto Rico.
In a second message Wednesday, the superintendent said he had gotten "a few communications from concerned families" about the policy the board adopted the prior night.
Stange said any parent can choose to pull their child out of the district's partial in-person learning plan, in which 87 percent of students are currently participating, and go for a fully remote plan through the Thanksgiving holiday. He emphasized administrators were open to working with families who may have unique circumstances behind their travel arrangements.
But they cannot be allowed to "bounce" back and forth between e-learning and in-person instruction, temporarily enrolling in the remote learning program after voluntarily taking part in travel to high-risk states, he said.
Switching between the remote and in-person learning environment District 29 offers its students is "not as simple as one more student logging into Zoom," according to the superintendent. "Such events alter workload demands, impact staffing assignments, and disrupt the continuity of the classroom environment for all students."
At a July 21 special meeting, District 29 officials backed away from a draft back-to-school plan that did not offer any fully remote learning alternatives for families who wished opt out of in-person instruction. It has since adopted an entirely e-learning plan it calls the "alternate remote" plan.
Administrators of the two-building, 477-student district does not publicly post recordings of its school board meetings on its website. But according tofrom the meeting, the new remote learning policy restricting access for self-quarantining students was spurred by the fragility of the district's staffing, including its rate of teacher absences.
"Students whose families choose to travel to a high-risk state as named by the [Illinois Department of Public Health] and the [Cook County Department of Public Health], and are observing the required days of quarantine upon their return, shall not participate in remote learning," according to the notes from Stange's presentation.
"Rather, they will be counted as absent, or can choose to enroll in the remote learning program for the remainder of the trimester. This is to lessen the disruption caused by students bouncing in and out of remote learning, which has a detrimental effect on both the in-person and remote learning environment for students and teachers."
Stange told Patch that administrators had been in contact with representatives of the Illinois State Board of Education about their remote learning policy.
While some families may have unique circumstances, District 29 administrators explained they intend to implement the state's official guidance that school districts "should provide remote instruction to students who are self-quarantining, if they are well enough to engage in learning," and that "staff who are self-quarantining may continue to work remotely if they are well enough to do so," Stange said.
"Parents can still report a child absent during travel and subsequent quarantine and then return to in-person learning," he explained. "Alternatively, they can switch enrollment to the remote program for the remainder of the trimester."