Administration says staffing will not allow hybrid learning in September

Students attending Bloomington Public Schools will not be returning to the classroom to start the school year in September due to the inability of the district to provide adequate staffing under the hybrid model the school board approved earlier this month.

The Bloomington Board of Education voted unanimously Aug. 17 to start the year with distance learning, a change to the district’s 2020-21 school year plan that it had approved two weeks earlier. The board voted 5-2 during its Aug. 3 meeting to begin the year with students attending classes two days per week, dubbed the hybrid model.

The change in direction to start the school year came the board was made because of the challenges the district faced in its efforts to provide options for at-home learning under the hybrid plan. Although the district intended to welcome students to its classrooms on a part-time basis next month, it was also offering an online option, and will continue to do so.

As part of its response to the coronavirus pandemic, the district has created a new program, Bloomington Online School, which provides a full-year option for families who are willing to commit to distance learning. But the district intended to offer a hybrid-flex option as well, which would allow families to begin the school year fully online, with an option for students to return to their school at a later date in the school year.

Providing staffing to meet the demands of online and in-person instruction proved to be beyond the district’s capability this fall.

Supt. Les Fujitake outlined the steps the district’s administrative team took in preparing to start the school year with a hybrid program.

The board’s Aug. 3 vote in support of the hybrid plan was not the culmination of the district’s fall planning, Fujitake said. Fall planning work had been underway through the summer, and the hybrid recommendation was based upon research and planning that district personnel had undertaken. The administrative team was satisfied with the hybrid model’s plan, according to Fujitake.

Upon approval of the model, however, both district families and staff had to declare their intent for the fall, which included accommodations for both families that did not want to send their children to a school building at the start of the year and for staff members who have the option to ask for accommodations in teaching this fall. Approximately 20% of the district’s teachers applied for accommodations, he noted.

Despite a well-designed hybrid model, the district cannot meet its staffing demands on Sept. 8 while offering online options as well, Fujitake added. “The model that the board approved is not viable,” he said, apologizing as he delivered his summation.

District staff members can work from home if they determine there is a health risk for them or their family by returning to a district building, according to Mary Burroughs, the district’s executive director of human resources.

Other staff members may ask for accommodations due to living in another school district and having children who they need to care for due to their district’s back-to-school plan. And there are options for staff members to request a leave for medical reasons, and if they are uncomfortable with returning to a school building next month, Burroughs explained.

Obstacles

Several administrators outlined the obstacles the district has in providing hybrid instruction this fall at both the elementary and secondary levels.

One of the obstacles to providing hybrid instruction with a flex option is that in order to meet the demands at the elementary level, teachers would need to fills gaps at other grade levels or buildings, according to Principal Brian Cline of Oak Grove Elementary. “We couldn’t make it happen,” he said.

Based upon the preferences expressed by students attending Jefferson High School this fall, it would have been difficult to adequately offer many high school courses, according to Principal Jaysen Anderson. With staffing accommodations to meet the demands of both online and in-person instruction, 159 of 188 courses would be inadequately staffed, based upon the preferences expressed by both students and teachers, he explained.

With no option offered other than starting the school year remotely, the district pledged to improve on student supports this fall, a criticism of the district’s quick transition to distance learning in March. The enhanced supports will be emphasized as part of the first week of school, Anderson noted.

Late change?

Boardmember Tom Bennett asked if families that initially elected for the new online school would have an option to opt out prior to the start of the school year with the switch from hybrid education to distance learning.

John Weisser, the district’s executive director of technology and information services, noted that the district has added seats for its online school, primarily at the high school, because of demand for the program. There has been a waiting list for the program, and 1,250 students were enrolled, he noted.

Families who are choosing the online program for the 2020-21 school year want stable plans they can count on, and the families that have participated in question-and-answer sessions about Bloomington Online School are enthusiastic about the program, according to Weisser. He didn’t sense many families will opt out of the program because the school year will begin with distance learning rather than a hybrid model, but the district would allow an opportunity for families to make that change prior to the start of the school year, he said.

If not now, when?

Boardmember Heather Starks asked what will allow the district to move to a hybrid plan if it is not feasible to start the school year.

Fujitake said that several factors may dictate when the district can open its buildings to students. The transmission date for COVID-19, the success of districts that implement a hybrid model this fall and new, rapid COVID-19 testing could influence more staff members to cancel their accommodation requests, he explained.

Updates about the district’s 2020-21 plans 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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