Mercer County school district works on COVID-19 response

Staff Writer
Aledo Times Record

Cathy Decker/Correspondent

ALEDO -- Mercer County school board members in attendance Wednesday, July 15, wore face masks during the meeting and set up the Intermediate School’s audience area with six-foot chair distancing, which would have allowed up to 45 audience members.

The Mercer County Board of Education approved a draft plan for the 2020-2021 “Return to Learn” school year. The district is working with a 63-page document put out by the Illinois Department of Health that dictates school responses during pandemic COVID-19.

COVID-19 responses include requiring that all staff and students wear face masks. Social distancing will require that no more than 50 students be in any one place. This will involve coordinating classroom teaching as well as busing, recess and lunchroom usage. One stipulation is for all students to have their temperatures measured before coming to school. In addition, a symptom questionnaire will need to certify student wellness.

Superintendent Scott Petrie and committees in each building in the district have been working on how the district will respond to the pandemic requirements. He thought that temperatures could be taken on the bus routes for students being bused, with parents given the task of certifying wellness.

At the junior and senior high schools teaching may be changed to have teachers move between classrooms, rather than the students. As for temperature testing, he envisioned bus monitors taking student temps, with parents certifying symptom free attendance.

One way the district responded to the school closing in March this year was to send out questionnaires to parents of the around 1300 expected students for the upcoming school year. One question asked whether parents would be sending their children back to school for 2020-2021. With close to 650 parent responses, around 40 percent indicated they would not be sending their children back to school.

Options for returning revolve around three possibilities: 1) full return as usual; 2) blended learning which is a combination of in-school and remote learning; 3) remote learning.

The blended learning option would see school starting at 8:05 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. until Labor Day for five days a week. The afternoons would be remote learning from their home computers. “There are a lot of details to work out,” said Petrie.

One problem with remote learning has to do with Internet access. Some areas in the district have no access (around 10 percent of students), or spotty/slow access (for 30 percent of students). “We’re working to be able to provide to those families and communities,” said Petrie.

During school registration, parents will indicate which model they prefer -- in school learning or remote learning.

One board member asked if start and stop times were the same at each school. Petrie said that one sticky point is that some families rely on older siblings being the caregivers of the younger children in the family.

Board member Mike Bowns had some words of wisdom. “We have to make our decisions the best we can. We’re all frustrated by this. We’re in new models (of schooling),” he said. “We need to make our decisions based on the information we have.”

A positive for the district comes from a $75,000 Looser Flake Foundation grant. In the previous four years foundation grants have been used to bring technology to the district through computer purchases. This year’s grant will be used to work on standards for delivery that uses remote learning.

Remote learning will need to have commonality of the platform for the teachers and finding ways to assess learning from the students.

In other business the board:

·       Approved the treasurer bond renewal for district treasurer and school secretaries handling money;

·       Authorized Midwest Bank as the depository of the Connie Sue Smith Scholarship Fund;

·       Amended next year’s school calendar moving the first day of school attendance for students as Aug. 17 (instead of Aug. 14), with teachers returning on the 14th and 15th for a teachers’ institute;

·       Amended calendar to close schools on Nov. 3 (Election Day) and add Nov. 11 (Veteran’s Day) as a school day;

·       Accepted resignations from Amy Degelman, high school PE and health teacher and Jodi Lindell, 3rd grade Apollo teacher and approved hiring Barb McNichols, Apollo custodian; Breanna McManus, full time substitute teacher.