By Mike Hanks

mike.hanks@apgecm.com

The plan to institute hybrid learning for Bloomington Public Schools is back on, at least for its youngest learners.

During its Sept. 28 meeting, the Bloomington Board of Education voted 5-2 in favor of hybrid education for students through fifth grade, beginning Oct. 19. As was the plan in August – a plan that was reversed two weeks later – students returning to the classroom will attend school two days per week in most cases, and complete the balance of their weekly curriculum remotely.

The recommendation to bring back elementary students, as well as preschool and early childhood students, on a part-time basis during the coronavirus pandemic was approved by a 5-2 vote. Board members Tom Bennett and Mia Olson voted against the recommendation, just as they voted against the plan in August.

The administration’s recommendation to bring back the district’s youngest students was based upon several factors, including the availability of teachers to provide both in-class instruction to students and online guidance. Students will attend classes on either Mondays and Thursdays or Tuesdays and Fridays, with online guidance when away from the classroom. And families have had the option to elect online learning full-time during the pandemic.

“Staffing is going to continue to be our biggest challenge,” said Asst. Supt. Jenna Mitchler. The ability to provide adequate staffing to meet the needs of all students will not be unique to Bloomington, based upon the challenges other school districts that began their year with a hybrid teaching model have reported, Mitchler noted.

The administration’s recommendation to institute hybrid learning is based upon data collected during the past several weeks, such as the success of districts that opened their school year with a hybrid model, county and city reports on COVID-19 rates and family preferences toward returning students to their classrooms this fall, Mitchler explained.

The district was preparing to open its school year using its preferred hybrid model of instruction when the board voted in favor of it on Aug. 3. The decision to backtrack two weeks later was made after administrators outlined the difficulty the district was having in providing adequate staffing for both classroom and online instruction while meeting accommodations requested by district personnel for the 2020-21 school year. Mitchler detailed how the district was prepared to meet the requirements and protocols for hybrid instruction at its elementary and secondary buildings.

While the district’s buildings are ready to welcome students back at less than capacity, in observation of social distance and sanitation guidelines, providing adequate staffing to all grade levels is an obstacle the district is not fully able to overcome as of yet, according to Mitchler.

Returning students to the classroom on a part-time basis will present challenges, prompting extensive questioning from the school board about policies and procedures regarding students and staffing if a teacher contracts COVID-19 or an outbreak occurs in a classroom. Administrators explained the possible outcomes, and Mitchler said the district’s decision-making is intended to provide the board, faculty and families with clarity, but not certainty.

Supt. Les Fujitake said that the move to hybrid instruction comes with tradeoffs, and that the district has prepared to respond to those tradeoffs. Andy Kubas, the district’s executive director of teaching and learning, noted that in weighing the tradeoffs of shifting to hybrid learning, “there’s no right answer.”

The district does not have a timetable for a potential shift to hybrid instruction for its secondary students, but Fujitake suggested middle school students could return at the end of their first quarter, while high school students could return at the end of their first trimester.

Bennett said the district’s course of action during the school year thus far aligned with the scenario he envisioned in August for eventually bringing students back to the classroom. Despite starting with the district’s youngest students, the disruption that coordinating the district’s staff under the hybrid model would create by forcing some students to inherit new teachers was a concern to Bennett.

He also cited concerns about the possibility that a spread of COVID-19 could cause the district to reverse course. Although case numbers in the city and county have decreased in recent weeks, Bennett noted that statewide numbers have seen recent spikes, and major outbreaks are occurring in neighboring states. He questioned if a disruption in the curriculum is worth a few weeks or months of hybrid instruction.

In outlining her opposition to bringing students back to the classroom, Olson said she thinks proactively rather than reactively, and predicted that the district would be forced to return to distance learning.

Mitchler acknowledged the concerns, noting there is no certainty in the district’s plans, and the remaining months of the school year may not be smooth. “There’s going to be disruption throughout the year,” she said.

Olson Elementary School Principal Paul Meyer said that the challenges the district will face will be met by the love the faculty and staff have for their students. Hybrid instruction is being instituted in the best interest of the students, he explained, noting that instituting educational changes is like turning a cruise shift. “Cruise ships don’t pivot,” he noted.

Boardmember Jim Sorum argued for the hybrid shift, questioning the wisdom of depriving the district’s young learners of their in-school experience and expressing confidence in the district’s elementary schools to meet the protocols and plans that have been set.

Boardmember Beth Beebe said her vote in support of the hybrid shift was in response to families who have expressed a need for classroom instruction and guidance, as parents count on the district for a service they cannot provide in their home. “We’re here to serve our community,” she said.

Updates to the district’s “Return to Learn” plan are available online at tr.im/return.

Follow Bloomington community editor Mike Hanks on Twitter at @suncurrent and on Facebook at suncurrentcentral.

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