This is the second in a series of special reports by the Lee Enterprises Midwest reporting team on the developing impact of COVID-19 on the region. Click here for the first part on how hospitals are handling the surge.
After overhauling operations to combat the spread of COVID-19, school districts across the virus-battered Midwest are scrambling to contain outbreaks, communicate with parents and keep classrooms staffed as teachers are forced to quarantine.
Some districts in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota started the year determined to continue in-person learning with a bevy of new protocols and precautions, only to return all students to online-only classes after a spike in cases. Others have temporarily shuttered schools or sent whole classes into isolation to prevent the virus spread.
“We are keenly aware of the burden this change puts on families, especially those with several children and adults working from home,” said Sister Judith Schaefer, president of Cotter Schools in Winona, Minnesota, when announcing an abrupt return to remote learning last week. “We all wish life were different right now.”
Journalists from Lee Enterprises Midwest last week sampled public school districts about policies and found widely different approaches and methods. In some areas, students have not stepped into a classroom since March, with all courses conducted through video chat and e-learning programs. Others adopted a “hybrid” approach with part-time classes that allow for more interactive lessons, such as science labs.
Many districts have already determined students will stay home through all of the winter holidays, anticipating more family gatherings that amplify the risk of outbreaks.
"People have get-togethers and go places over the holidays," said Larry Daly, principal of St. Teresa High School in Decatur, Illinois. "We want to give time for symptoms to show up so they're not in school and we don't have to do contact tracing."
The constant changes — all rooted in a desire to keep students, staff and families safe — have added tension to an already tumultuous time.
“The biggest impact on the district is we cannot get in a good groove on anything. We do not have the ability to plan for our future,” said Daniel Booth, superintendent of Carbondale Elementary School District 95 in Southern Illinois. “It makes a job that is already tough even tougher.”
In Wisconsin, the state’s education agency this summer offered guidance for how schools could safely reopen. But the agency stopped short of telling the 421 districts what metrics should prompt a retreat from face-to-face learning.
In rural areas, the "vast majority" of districts chose to begin the year fully in-person, driven primarily by a lack of broadband access that limit options for remote learning, said Kim Kaukl, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance.
But since early September, temporary closures have become a near daily occurrence across south central Wisconsin.
"There's been a lot of yo-yoing going on: opening, closing, opening, closing," Kaukl said.
With the dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases, more rural districts are switching to remote instruction through the end of November or until early December, hoping to get through the "hot period,” Kaukl said.
But limited broadband access remains the biggest issue in rural areas, and some schools view an extended switch to online learning as a "last resort," he said.
In La Crosse, Wisconsin, 48% of district families are considered economically disadvantaged. The district provided mobile hotspots for those without internet and distributed meals from 30 locations to those 18 and younger.
Administrators had hoped to return students to classes in the fall but decided to maintain remote learning after a rapid spike in cases.
“These decisions are not easy,” Superintendent Aaron Engel said. “They keep you awake at night or with a sick feeling in your stomach.”
More than two dozen districts in Northwest Indiana also rapidly changed plans last week in response to an increase in cases.
Reopening strategies varied among the mix of urban, suburban and rural communities, with some opting for fully remote or hybrid learning options before transitioning back to in-person learning in some districts just weeks ago.
Now, with county positivity rates triple that of the start of the academic year, more communities are turning back to remote learning — some for just a couple of weeks to allow affected staff and students to finish quarantines and others to wait out potential spread in the coming holiday season.
In the Lake Central School Corp., one of the largest school districts in Northwest Indiana, students began the year with in-person learning. More than 1,400 students and staff were quarantined from Nov. 4 to 10.
As a result, the district will begin transitioning students to virtual learning next week, with officials hoping to return to in-person instruction in early December.
At least a dozen other Northwest Indiana districts have made similar adjustments within the last two weeks, drawing concern for the increasing instability of students’ education.
One such decision this week in East Chicago, Indiana, drew the ire of teachers and paraprofessionals working for the city’s public school system and its neighboring districts.
The School City of East Chicago began the academic year virtually and had only transitioned back to in-person instruction for two weeks before administrators announced Monday they would shut buildings down again. Students are only expected to learn from home for about two weeks, bringing them back to buildings between Thanksgiving and winter breaks.
“We need to close down and do this all online virtual,” said Juanita Espinosa-Guillen, an East Chicago paraprofessional speaking at a rally from the steps of City Hall Thursday. “They’re trying to do both. They’re trying to do virtual, and they’re trying to do in class. And I feel bad because the students that are virtual aren’t really getting the education they need.”
While officials in face-to-face districts say transmission of the virus between students in class remains low, the rapid rise in community spread outside of schools has administrators pleading with parents to do their part to help keep students in school where educators say students learn best.
Dr. Kristina Box, Indiana’s top health official, said community spread is rising as a result of pandemic fatigue with adults refusing to wear masks, employers requiring staff to work through quarantine and parents deciding not to test their children for fear they will have to quarantine.
“I understand that this is hard,” Box said. “This entire year has been hard, but it’s going to get even harder if we don’t recommit to those very basic mitigation procedures that we’ve been discussing all year — wearing a mask, socially distancing, staying home if you’re sick and getting tested and washing your hands.”
In Winona, Minnesota, public school students have undergone several changes since the start of the year, when a hybrid approach was initially planned for all students. High school students switched to remote learning until late September.
After a period of hybrid learning for all, a spike in cases last week caused the district to first announce that middle school classes — and later, all classes — would switch back to remote learning.
“The public health situation deteriorated much faster than we anticipated,” Superintendent Annette Freiheit said in a letter to the community Thursday, after 71 new cases were announced. “As much as we would have liked to give more advance warning, we are concerned that we are exposing our students, staff and their families to infection if we don’t act now.”
For smaller schools, even a few positive cases can have an outsized effect. That’s what happened to the seventh-grade class at the Maroa Forsyth school district in Central Illinois. When two students tested positive there, it meant more than half of the grade had to be quarantined.
Parent Jennifer Panganiban said she had been impressed with the handling of the situation. Students can attend in-person four days a week, with Wednesdays all-remote for all students or choose e-learning, which is a combination of live online sessions and students working independently.
“The communication has continued to be ongoing, clear, honest, and supportive from both the administration and teachers,” she said. “The teachers are doing so much to support the kids and to help them know they are loved. I can’t believe how much both of our kids have learned this year.”
Another rural Central Illinois district, Heyworth in McLean County, moved all students back to remote learning for the rest of the fall semester after the number of positive cases tripled in recent weeks.
Superintendent Lisa Taylor said the district, with fewer than 1,000 students, reached “a tipping point” where they would likely have more students at home than in person with too few staff members to fill all positions.
“Honestly, it just felt like we would be doing a disservice to the district to keep it in person at this point,” she said.
In Dane County, Wisconsin, which includes the state capital of Madison, public school systems opted for an online beginning to 2020-21.
Most of the public students in the county haven't seen the inside of a classroom since March. That includes the 26,000-student Madison School District — the state's second-largest school system — which will stay online until at least January.
It’s a different story in the county’s private schools. After planning for a return to face-to-face learning, private school leaders in Dane County were blindsided in August by the local health department's decision to restrict most grades to learning exclusively online.
Private schools, parents and advocacy groups succeeded in getting the state's Supreme Court to temporarily block those restrictions.
While COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are increasing, health department officials report they are "supportive" of bringing back face-to-face learning for pupils in kindergarten to second grade as "we are not seeing strong connections to in-person school environments."
Even in contiguous communities, approaches can vary greatly. The Kenosha Unified School District last week ignored a warning from its local health department that all schooling should be virtual through at least the end of 2020. Immediately to the north, Racine Unified School District has kept all students learning from home since March.
The Kenosha school district, which includes 40 schools, said instead that it would follow its previously outlined plans for the year, a blueprint called Return2020 that allows it to evaluate school buildings on a case-by-case basis.
The district has experienced several outbreaks and in the first two weeks of the year had to close seven buildings to in-person learning.
“Since the start of school, we have addressed areas of high need while having little to no impact on other schools that have not been greatly impacted by COVID-positive cases,” the district reported. “This targeted approach, in conjunction with the following mitigation efforts, has helped to slow the spread within our schools.”
Racine’s public health department — aggravated over some segments of the public ignoring masking and social distancing protocols — on Thursday ordered all of the schools in its jurisdiction, public and private, to close buildings after Thanksgiving.
“The top priority must be keeping students and staff safe until the pandemic is under control,” said Angelina Cruz, president of the Racine Educators Union. “That’s how we keep the community safe, too. This is a responsible decision, grounded in science and public health.”
A number of Wisconsin teachers’ unions have called for full remote learning since the start of the pandemic, organizing caravans and other protests aimed at persuading lawmakers to force districts online.
Although some residents were unhappy with the Racine health department’s order, the president of a collective of six local Catholic schools showed no plans to fight it.
“We’re surprised by the order but not surprised by the Health Department’s decision to protect the community,” said Brenda White, president of Siena Catholic Schools of Racine.
Union Grove Elementary School, located 10 miles west of Racine, isn’t subject to any of these orders. But it held one virtual learning day this past week — despite having been among the first schools in the state to return to in-person learning.
In Central Illinois, McLean County Unit 5 started with remote learning in August and transitioned back. Less than a month since students returned to buildings, district leaders worried about having enough available staff and announced Friday that they would return to remote learning.
Teacher quarantines have put a strain on the shortage of substitute teachers, which affected Central Illinois even before the pandemic. Across the region, school districts have been forced to rely on other teachers and administrators to cover for classrooms unfilled by substitutes or classroom supervisors.
"The district is dangerously close to not being able to staff all of our buildings,” Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle said last week before the district announced its return to remote learning Friday, “and what that means is we may not be able to keep all of our buildings open if we don't get more subs.”
The mounting strain on teachers across the state has many educators considering leaving the profession, according to a survey from the Illinois Education Association.
Among educators surveyed, 27% said they have seriously considered giving up teaching due to the difficulties of distance learning during the pandemic, IEA President Kathi Griffin said.
“I will tell you that I have never heard or seen more concerned, burnt out, exhausted teachers,” said Lindsey Dickinson, president of the Unit 5 Education Association in McLean County. The survey results indicate “this year has been so difficult ... if the pressure continues the same way it’s not going to be sustainable and there’s going to be a vast exit from a variety of teachers across the state. Of course already when we have a teacher shortage.”
East Chicago, Indiana
East Chicago, Indiana
St. John, Indiana
St. John, Indiana
St. John, Indiana
St. John, Indiana
McLean County, Illinois
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison Area Technical College
Illinois State University
Eastern Illinois University
Contributing reporting are Lee Enterprises Midwest reporters Logan Wroge of the Wisconsin State Journal; Valerie Wells of the Herald & Review; Kelsey Watznauer and Sierra Henry of The Pantagraph; Dave Fopay of JG-TC; Caitlin Sievers, Adam Rogan and Dee Holzel of the Journal Times; Terry Flores and Daniel Truttschel of the Kenosha News; Carley Lanich of The Times of Northwest Indiana; Emily Pyrek of the La Crosse Tribune; Marilyn Halstead and Molly Parker of The Southern Illinoisan; Rachel Mergen of the Winona Daily News; and Allison Petty, Midwest regional digital editor.
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