NORMAL – As the pandemic which the country has dealt with since earlier this year continues, a plan formulated by Normal-based Unit 5 School District to reopen schools in August was unanimously approved by School Board members. The plan received unanimous approval of Board members with the condition that the district’s new superintendent will have latitude to revise the plan as situations develop.

But the plan was met with concern from parents and some district teachers who addressed the Board’s first in-person session since mid-March, held at Normal Community West High School.

The Board meeting was the first one held in person since the district closed school buildings by order of the State and had students engage in remote learning in March. About 125 people social distanced in and around the school cafeteria.

Two Board members – Taunia Leffler and Barry Hitchins – participated by phone, making use of a Board policy which allows for it. This was also the first Board meeting for new superintendent Dr. Kristen Kendrick-Weikle since being introduced in January and starting officially on July 1.

Spectators numbering around 125 spread out to be socially distant in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Some sat in the cafeteria and kitchen area while others sat in rows distancing from one another in corridors near the cafeteria, listening intently to Board members and citizens who made public comments.

Among the mandated precautions the plan devised by the district are: Students must wear masks at all times unless eating or outside; Schools will perform social distancing to the greatest extent possible; Physical education classes will take place while adhering to social distancing guidelines as much as possible and without the use of locker rooms, except for swimming classes.

The district will continue providing breakfast and lunch under the plan, with students only allowed to remove masks for eating. Under the plan, only 50 students at a time will be allowed in cafeterias to allow for social distancing.

Pre-Kindergarten students will attend half-day, either morning or afternoon; Kindergarten through fifth grade will attend in person five days a week, and sixth graders through high school seniors will attend in person Mondays and Tuesdays. On Wednesdays, teachers will lead remote discussions, followed on Thursdays and Fridays by students engaged in learning and working on assignments at their own pace.

Before the vote, during public comments, 13 people spoke, all in opposition to the plan. A few were district employees. Michelle Kraft, a Benjamin Elementary School second grade teacher, told Board members those who teach in the district are aware in-person learning “is best whenever possible.” She said the district plan for social distancing aren’t realistic when it comes to working it at younger grade levels. “The plan says to do social distancing the best that you can, but how can you in a busy second grade classroom?,” she asked.

Lyndsey Dickinson, president of Unit Five Education Association, the union that represents nearly 1,000 district teachers, told Board members. “When the pandemic hit, our members immediately adjusted and adapted, working remotely to support the growth and learning of our students. She called remote learning “an immense challenge for our students, their parents and caregivers.”

She stated UFEA did not “directly participate in the development of this plan,” established by the district’s pandemic advisory committee. “We would have liked to work collaboratively with the district on the development of the plan.”

Following the meeting, Dr. Kendrick-Weikle countered Dickinson’s claim concerning whether UFEA members were included as part of the advisory committee for input. “They were included in the pandemic advisory committee,” she said. “They were provided opportunities to speak up.” The superintendent specified Dickinson was present for a meeting held on July 17 in the district office when the district’s initial plan was reviewed prior to the plan being publicly announced.

“I am concerned the plan does not do enough to address the number of bodies in class each day,” added teacher George Van Winkle in his public comments, pointing out there are as many as 25 students or more in an average elementary school classroom, a number that jumps to around 30 or more once kids enter junior high and high school. He asked how, one aspect of the plan, splitting class sizes alphabetically, would assure class numbers would keep kids safe from potential exposure to the virus.

Tyler McWhorter, a teacher at Normal Community High School, asked Board members to vote in favor of the plan if they felt it was good enough to use in order to send their own children back to class, a request which received a smattering of applause from attendees. He also issued a challenge to Normal Town leaders and officials from the City of Bloomington, McLean County, and local State leaders to “come spend a full day in one of our schools under this new plan because we are past the point of merely discussing it in terms of public education.”

Prefacing her comments with the number of people who have lost lives as a result of the pandemic, Aditi Sharma, who will be an NCHS senior this fall, added, “There is one thing we should never be forced to compromise, and that is the safety of our families. Opening schools now is irresponsible and dangerous. People are tired, frustrated, and misinformed. As a result, they are not social distancing and wearing masks, especially teenagers.”

“Can you fully assure that students are social distancing in school of over 2,000 kids, who are being divided into three groups only for attendance?’ Sharma asked Board members, reminding that “teenagers are impulsive and don’t always listen to authority. Take it from me, a teenager.”

Contract With Laborers’ Union Approved: Board members also approved a contract with staff members who belong to Local 362 of Laborers’ International Union of North America, which represents full-time and part-time custodians.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020 at 10:27 pm and is filed under The Normalite, Unit 5. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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