The biggest challenge for Wilmette Public Schools to welcome more students back to the classroom is space.
District 39 is limited in its ability to add more middle-school students learning in-person simultaneously at Wilmette Junior High and Highcrest Middle School because of state guidelines requiring 6 feet of social distancing.
At their meeting Monday, Feb. 22, D39 Board of Education members pushed the district to find out how firm those guidelines are.
Wilmette District 39 officials decided in mid-January to maintain the current hybrid learning model — which has middle-schoolers alternating between in-person and virtual learning each day and students in grades K-4 learning in-person daily but with a shortened schedule — at the 5-8 level through at least the third quarter.
Since, administrators have reviewed plans to merge pods of students at the two middle schools, and indications are the district can maintain 4 feet of social distance.
The district will likely seek a safety affirmation from the state for that level of distancing.
“I’ve heard the board’s plea, and some members of our community who have asked us to really examine whether we are meeting the guidelines of the (Illinois Department of Public Health) if we were to merge and reduce that social distancing; those are things that we’ll need to evaluate,” Superintendent Dr. Kari Cremascoli said.
“… Really at the end of the day I know that is important to the board that we continue to adhere to the guidelines of IDPH and so we really need to reach out to them and say, ‘Here’s all the mitigation procedures we have in place, if we reduce to 4 feet of distancing are we still compliant with the guidelines of IDPH?”
Board members asked the administration to further review what it takes to merge two pods of students together and what the costs and benefits of that decision might entail.
Board President Lisa Schneider-Fabes described the situation as a “balancing act,” adding she “think(s) we owe it to ourselves to understand what it would look like and what it means.”
“This is a complex issue,” she said. “I think no one can doubt our commitment to bringing everyone back as soon as is safe. I think that the administration has some work to do in thinking about what’s possible and what does it all mean.”
Cremascoli said the administration will come back at the board’s March meeting to provide an update on what analysis it has been able to accomplish.
Although the 2021-22 school year is still months away, district officials are laying the groundwork for what the district’s operational model might look like.
Cremascoli told the board of education during its Feb. 22 meeting that the district is planning for daily, in-person instruction for all of its students next school year.
“While it is difficult to predict the health and safety guidelines that will be required in fall, we are planning for daily in-person instruction for all students enrolled accordingly,” Cremascoli told the board.
She also informed the board that the district’s plans for offering a full-remote-learning option next year are ambiguous right now, but that the administration will likely move forward with that option if there is a state requirement or strong interest from families.
“It’s right now unclear to us what remote learning requirements or needs might be, so we’re continuing to keep a close eye on that as well,” Cremascoli said. “Certainly we’ve had tremendous success this year with our fully remote program and if there’s a need for that, a requirement for that, or just an interest in it, that may be something we want to continue into next year.
“But again, that will be something the board will have to grapple with because there are some costs associated with operating the full in-person program and the fully remote program. We’ll be continuing to evaluate that but we are at this point planning for daily, in-person instruction for all students enrolled accordingly next year.”
Saliva screening will continue through April 12
The board confirmed a recommendation from the testing subcommittee of the district’s metrics team that will keep Wilmette Public Schools’ COVID-19 saliva-screening program in place until two weeks after spring break.
The cost of the program, which was first implemented at New Trier High School, will remain $11 per test, Cremascoli said.
Officials are estimating the total cost of the program will be approximately $65,000 if it runs through April 12 as planned.
So far, nearly half of the program’s cost has been covered by contributions from district families, officials said.
More than 90 percent of staff members have received first vaccine dose
By Feb. 26, about 92 percent of Wilmette Public Schools staff members will have received at least their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Cremascoli said at the meeting.
At this pace in the vaccine cycle, that same 92 percent will be fully vaccinated by the time of the district’s spring break in April.
“This is really, really good news especially considering a month ago we weren’t sure we would have access to it and we were really struggling to schedule (vaccine) events for our community,” Cremascoli said. “This is not only great for our teachers and for our staff and for all those that are working within our schools but it’s wonderful for our students to reduce the amount of absences and quarantines that might otherwise impact us.”
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Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.