URBANA, Ill. (WCIA) — Urbana’s superintendent announced the district would be pivoting away from a proposal to bring elementary school students back for hybrid learning in the second quarter, instead focusing on at-risk students.

“Today, we received an emergency ruling from ISBE, specifically for districts who are in the same situation as we are, dealing with an in-person staffing shortage” Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Ivory-Tatum said. “Districts will now be able to utilize unlicensed personnel in a way we never have before. We’d now be able to use TAs and support staff to assist students learning in school from a remote teacher, provided there’s a licensed staff member in the building designated as their supervisor.”

Surveys recently sent to families and staff revealed a quarter of the staff members surveyed said they strongly disagreed with any return to in-person learning. 18.4 percent said they “disagreed.” Just more than 11 percent of staffers said they agreed with the plan.

Ivory-Tatum said based on the ruling from ISBE, her team would begin working with elementary school administrators to identify students who are disengaged and for whom remote learning has been unsuccessful.

The plan would include bringing back the “most-vulnerable” K-2 graders into the classrooms for the synchronous learning blocks, where they will receive support from the unlicensed personnel.

“We’ll reach out to the 204 African American students who represent 53% of our chronic truant elementary disconnected remote learning students and 72 Hispanic students who represent 20% of our chronic truant elementary students and come up with a plan to support them in person,” Ivory-Tatum said. 62 white students were also identified as chronically truant. “This will include support for our students with IEPs and those needing language support.”

For grades 3-5, the superintendent said this setup could mean working in the district’s learning labs or in classrooms for students who need 1-on-1 support.

Ivory-Tatum said she’d work with district leaders to develop a hybrid plan for the rest of the students in January.

She said nearly 300 Urbana High School students and more than 140 middle schoolers have been considered chronically truant this school year, and that the district is specifically inviting them to attend learning labs with a maximum of 50 students at a time as well. MTD and First Student are both transportation options for reaching those labs.

Under the district’s definition, absences 10% of the quarter thus far were considered chronically truant. Board member John Dimit noted by Ivory-Tatum’s numbers, that meant more than half of the district’s students of color were chronically truant.

“This troubles me that we’re backing off in-person attendance when these truancy rates are way beyond what we’ve experienced in the past,” he said. “It tells me that no matter what we do, and as hard as we try to make remote learning be effective, it is not as effective as in-person learning.”

Ivory-Tatum said the district will not be moving forward with its proposed timeline of beginning hybrid learning October 22 due to the staffing shortages. Instead, she aims to start moving unlicensed personnel into the classrooms at elementary schools this week and bringing vulnerable students back as quickly as possible.

Ivory-Tatum could not answer with certainty Tuesday night whether the in-person teams at the elementary schools would include therapists who are trained to work with students who have special needs.

“I think it would just depend on who might be willing to do that [return] at this point,” she said. “A lot of them are doing teletherapy remotely, and I would imagine many would continue to do that based on the emails read tonight and the many texts and phone messages and emails that I’ve received.”

Although many of the comments made during public hearing were in favor of remaining in remote learning, Ivory-Tatum said she’s received numerous emails asking for some sort of in-person learning for disengaged students. Nearly half of the families surveyed — 1,058 — had said they preferred to remain remote, with 32.9 percent saying they favored the hybrid plan. 

WCIA spoke with a parent who showed up for public comment to urge the district to continue remote learning.

“You know, it’s only been recently that the CDC has admitted that children are carriers leading to people getting sick,” Sam Vandegrift said. “I think there’s a lot of things that we don’t know yet, and so it would be a shame to use the children in our district as guinea pigs to find out.” 

But board member Ruth Ann Fisher called on families struggling with the remote learning plans to speak up.

“Let us know how much your child needs to be back in their environment or element,” Fisher said. “If you really think that’s best for your child, we need to know these things.”

Board president Anne Hall urged Ivory-Tatum to use the second quarter and winter break not only to plan for a hybrid plan next semester, but to also plan a robust plan in the event the district must return to a fully remote plan.

“I just want us to succeed in every possible arena that we might have to face,” Hall said.