After a closed session with their attorney in the shadow of a lawsuit, followed by lengthy discussion in open session, members of the Hillsboro School Board during their Tuesday, July 14, meeting tabled a decision on a proposed re-opening plan for this fall that would have students either remote learning at home or attending class under strict requirements.
That decision will be made at a special meeting set for Tuesday, July 21, beginning at 7 p.m. at the Hillsboro Junior High School cafeteria.
"The plan was put together by the administrative team following the direction of the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Department of Public Heath," Superintendent David Powell said of the fall re-opening plan described during the meeting in the junior high cafeteria. "We also got input from the teachers union, and will continue to ask for input from them and the county health department as well as local doctors."
The plan will move the first day of student attendance back a couple of days to Wednesday, Aug. 19, and offers parents the option of in-person instruction or remote learning, a decision to be made during registration.
"We are not asking parents to stick to that decision the entire year," Powell said. "The plan does allow for folks to change from one option to the other."
The school day would be shortened–from 8 a.m. to 1:45 p.m., varying a bit by building just as it does now. Both core academic and elective classes will be offered.
"The most important thing I can say about the remote learning option is that it won't be this spring's remote learning," the superintendent said. "It will be a much better product."
Remote learning would occur Monday through Friday, with conferences with teachers available from 1:45-3:45 each day. Students will be expected to complete school-related tasks for about five hours a day. Daily participation, assignments, grading and attendance would be required. Students enrolled in remote learning who do not participate in earnest will be referred to the truancy program.
Students who attend classes on campus should be masked, a requirement that is at the heart of the lawsuit against the district.
"The plan requires masks," Powell said, noting exceptions such as during lunch, band, and for medical issues. "We will be providing each student and staff a washable mask."
Every student will be screened–including temperature checks–before entering the school building or before getting on a bus. Students will go directly to their assigned classrooms upon entering the building.
No more than 50 students will be on a school bus; students will be screened before boarding and must wear masks.
Every student at every level will be on free breakfast and lunch–"that's statewide," the superintendent said. Breakfast will be in classrooms; students will be assigned a lunch location where social distancing will be observed to the extent possible.
Lockers will not be used; students should bring a book bag or backpack, but not other personal items. Students should bring refillable water bottles; bottle filling fountains are being installed.
If students can social distance outside, masks will be optional during recess. The use of playground equipment is still under consideration.
Hand washing opportunities and sanitizing stations are among the plans, and teachers and custodians will be responsible for frequent cleaning.
"Teachers are going to be asked to become cleaners," the superintendent said.
Classrooms will be rearranged and movement between classes will be "choreographed" to allow three-to-six-foot social distancing. Symptom checks will be "initial and ongoing." There will be quarantine stations for those who exhibit symptoms during the school day. Cases will be tracked, reported, and excluded when necessary.
"We will be asking families to let us know if their child has been exposed to COVID," Powell said.
Extracurricular activities are still up in the air. Powell said the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) said earlier that day they will no longer be issuing guidelines for student athletes, and will instead defer to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH).
"Plus, we are party along with the IHSA to a lawsuit," Powell said, "and our attorney has advised me to not say anything else about that."
During the portion of the agenda for recognition of the audience, Tom DeVore, an attorney from Sorento with three children who are Hillsboro School District students and who earlier in the week filed a lawsuit against the IHSA challenging compulsory COVID-19 requirements, told board members he believed they had no authority for the requirement.
He presented board members with an 1897 Illinois Supreme Court decision regarding required small pox vaccinations as a condition for attending school.
"It was found by the court that although educators were acting in good faith, that didn't matter," DeVore said. "The state board of health and the state board of education cannot pass these compulsory laws that amount to legislation. The question is can we do it–yes or no–not whether or not it is a good idea."
The school code, DeVore said regarding the 1897 opinion, was eventually amended by legislation, "as it should have been."
"People tell me all the time, 'you're putting kids at risk,'" he said. "I'm not putting kids at risk. I'm not the state legislature."
DeVore began his discussion by presenting the district with a waiver of liability should his children contact COVID-19 in school. School district attorney Jeff Funk was present at the meeting.
Discussion on the reopening plan after the closed session centered around moving teachers from class to class instead of students, temperature screening procedures, and the potential need for increased cleaning staff–all questions raised by Vice-President Barbara Adams.
Board member Dan Tester asked if substitute teachers and bus drivers would be even more difficult to find; full-time subs are a possibility, albeit an expensive one, Powell said.
Coffeen Principal Marci Gutierrez said she is waiting for guidance from ISBE on procedures at the new pre-K attendance center.
Board member Bryce Rupert asked about discipline in the case of non-compliance with safety rules.
"We will make every effort to remind students frequently that they need to keep their masks on," Powell answered, "but if you don't make a good faith effort to comply, then you're going to be excluded from school."
Rupert was also concerned about the shortened school day and reduction in classroom time–"are the taxpayers getting their money's worth?"–and remote learning in which students are following the same schedule as in-class students. Current technology prohibits the latter, the superintendent said, and remote lessons are designed differently.
Regarding the shortened class time, instruction time will be about the same, Adams said. It is the homework time at the end of the class period that will be sacrificed.
Board member Matt Lentz asked about changes in requirements that may occur; they will be incorporated into the plan as needed.
"What do we do when the first student or staff tests positive?" Rupert asked.
"Notify, track, quarantine, and exclude from school for a certain time," Powell said, describing a "contact tracing" plan which requires finding those who have been in close contact with the positive case for more than 15 minutes. Assigned seating in classrooms and restricted movement outside of class are designed to aid in that effort.
Powell said that 64.6 percent of families have indicated that they would prefer attending classes, 12.5 prefer remote learning, and 22.9 percent are still undecided.
Under the first item on the agenda under "new business," the board accepted the resignation of President Greg Bellaver, who has accepted a job in Altoona, WI. Adams chaired the meeting in his absence.
The board has 45 days to fill the vacancy, and will advertise for applications for the position.
"I do want to publicly thank Greg–even though he is in Wisconsin," Adams said. "He was a great leader and a great friend who always had the best interest of the kids at heart."
After a short hearing in which there were no public comments, the board renewed its tuition waiver for children of employees who live outside of the school district. In the past, Powell said, the district has had "a few" students take advantage of that opportunity.
The board approved the lone bid from Stark Distributing of Pana for dairy products for the coming school year, and from M&M Service, the lowest of two bidders for fuel.
Board members also approved a $63,904 payment to Unterbrink Construction for the under-construction summer project to air condition the high school gym.
"That project is going well," Powell said.
To begin the meeting, the superintendent announced that the Montgomery County 708 board awarded the school district a $39,000 grant to fund the elementary school social worker. That position was initiated thanks to 708 grant funding two years ago.
Personnel moves made after the closed session: the board approved the revocation of intent to retire from high school teacher Laura Rench, approved the retirement of Lisa Lister effective at the end of the past school year, hired John Coziar as high school PE teacher, hired Daniel Drake as band director, and hired Erin Huff as fourth grade teacher. They approved the retirement of custodian Leroy Montgomery effective immediately and hired Bobby Ellis to replace him, and honorably dismissed cook Shawne Page due to a reduction in force.