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Dixon School Board members want more in-person school days; district to survey parents

DIXON – The Dixon School District is considering changing its reopening plan to include more in-person school days and possibly pushing back the start of school.

The district will be sending a survey to parents to gauge whether they would prefer sending their children to school for 2 days per week or 4. The decision came after a 3-hour study session Thursday where board members were concerned that 2 days of in-person instruction wouldn't be enough.

Depending on survey results and whether a 4-day schedule would allow staff to follow the COVID-10 guidelines, that could mean pushing the start of school to Sept. 8 to prepare.

The preliminary reopening plan presented to the board 2 weeks ago includes two options for either on-site blended or full remote learning for students.

The on-site learning option has students in school 2 days a week, either Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday, from 7:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. Students will be grouped alphabetically by last names. Classrooms will be limited to 50% capacity – about a dozen students – with social distancing.

Off-site days will be for online learning, and Fridays will be remote learning for all students.

Those choosing full remote learning still will have schedules from 7:45 a.m. to 1 p.m., and students will need to check in every day online for attendance. It will be a mix of live and taped instruction.

Board member Brad Sibley said community members are concerned that the district isn't allowing them to make decisions, and that they need to be willing to take some risks.

"Parents want their kids to have some sense of normalcy, and normalcy is getting these kids back into school 5 days a week, especially K through 5," Sibley said.

Board member Melissa Gates agreed.

"I don't think our kids should be out of school," she said.

Board President Linda Wegner said they shouldn't have more than 12 students in a classroom.

"I feel like we need to use all our weapons of safety that we have and if we can commit to social distancing, we have to do masks, and other protocols in place ... I just think we need to start slow," Wegner said.

Superintendent Margo Empen said they may not be able to properly social distance and follow guidelines if they have students at school for more days, which is why they did the 2-day approach. They shortened the school day to 5 hours because of the duration of time students must wear masks.

"We just want people to understand that the fear is not if, but when," Empen said. "This was not done in isolation. We've tried to look and put things in the best place possible for our staff and our students."

Ermir Ramadani of the Lee County Health Department said each way of reopening schools has its pros and cons. Having students in school only 2 days can be a challenge for parents during the off days, but it's a way to limit the risk of transmission.

"We think that pro will outweigh those types of cons," Ramadani said.

There's also the concern that parents were surveyed before the preliminary plan was released, so the numbers might not be a good representation, board Vice President Kelly Flanagan said.

Of the parents of students in pre-K through fifth grade, 66.9% said they plan to send their students back to school and 33.1% prefer remote learning, according to a July 10 survey.

For sixth through eighth grades, 70.4% of parents said they plan to send their students back to school, with 29.6% preferring remote learning.

For parents of high-schoolers, 73.5% said they plan to send their students back to school, and 26.5% prefer remote learning.

So far, 1,529 students have enrolled, with more than 1,000 left, Empen said. Of those, 1,211 have chosen the on-site blended learning and 474 chose remote learning.

District attorney Tim Zollinger said there's no perfect way to reopen, but districts must follow guidelines or risk their funding, and they need to honor teacher contacts.

"COVID is a horrible situation that has happened to our economy, to our families and to school settings, but you have to look at it as, how do I triage it, maintain compliance with the department of public health, keep as many teachers and kids as you can healthy and maintain those standards," he said.

Districts are doing their best to balance education practices with health and safety.

"It's critical that these kids get a good education; it's also critical that we keep them safe, and not just the kids, but the adults in the room," Dixon High School Principal Mike Grady said.

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