WHEATON – Hundreds of families gathered at Memorial Park in Wheaton on Sept. 8 to send out one message: Bring students back to school.
Huddled around the stage, those with signs held theirs up high: “Mom, Zoom is not working,” “kitchen table and laptop ≠ education” and “my 7-year-old granddaughter needs to go to school.”
“In my mind, we have two choices – fight or quit,” said Wheaton Warrenville South senior Parker Brown, whose speech at the rally was met with immediate applause. “We’re asking the superintendents, the board members and the state leaders to fight for us. Remote learning, to me, is quitting.”
Parker Brown’s father Eric, a few of Brown's classmates, a soccer coach and a Wheaton businessman also spoke candidly about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their families, communities and way of life.
They expressed concerns about how online learning already has stunted students from receiving a proper education and how it has put an indefinite pause on their access to resources, their interpersonal skills and their participation in sports and other activities.
Daily technical troubles, spotty WiFi and too much screen time are just some of the issues that Brown said he and his peers face. Fellow senior Becca Hauenstein said what she, Brown and several others are asking for comes down to this: at least create an option for students to attend classes in person.
“Just being on a screen for six hours straight,” said Hauenstein, 17, of what her virtual learning experience has looked like since the pandemic started in March. “Kids obviously have a hard time concentrating the whole time and they can lose their motivation to do their work.”
Metea Valley High School teacher Chris Whaley piled on his own challenges and recalled how he felt last week as the new school year began.
“I walked into my empty classroom. I looked around. I opened up my computer to start my first call,” Whaley said on stage, peering out into the crowd. “I looked my students in the eyes and it was the hardest thing I had to do. I told them that I was there for them. I was positive as I could possibly be. I wanted to be a source of encouragement for them. And in the meantime, all I could feel was a sense of loneliness and lack of connection with my students.”
According to a Community Unit School District 200 newsletter, school administrators decided to pull back on their plans to reopen schools when the Illinois Department of Public Health offered more specific guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among students and staff. Those guidelines go beyond practicing social distancing, wearing masks and frequent hand washing.
As outlined in Superintendent Jeff Schuler’s letter, the Illinois Department of Public Health's new definition of close contact made the district’s plans “impossible to implement.” Public health officials now say that aside from living with or caring for someone who is COVID-19 positive, close contact also includes being within six feet of a person with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes.
Schuler said in his letter that “figuring out how to account for this new running clock for anyone who a student or staff member may have come into close contact with will be very difficult and likely lead to more students and staff needing to quarantine.”
At this point, CUSD 200 has moved forward to include in-person instruction for its elementary schools, but students in middle school and high school will begin this school year with remote learning, Schuler's letter said. Schuler wrote, “We have the opportunity to manage cohorts of students much better than at the middle and high schools with no movement during the day.”
As of Sept. 8, there were 15,453 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in DuPage County and 539 deaths, according to the county’s health department. While a majority of those deaths involved people over the age of 60, county health officials have recorded a number of COVID-19 cases among children and teens under the age of 19. Recent numbers from the county health department show there are 1,234 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among teens between 15 and 19, 477 cases among children between 5 and 14, and 198 cases for babies and toddlers up to age 4.
Rally attendees such as Diane DeVito shared their frustration. DeVito, who drove from south suburban Orland Park with other concerned parents to attend the event, said her school district, Consolidated High School District 230, recently ruled to resume on-site learning when the state moves to Phase 5 of the Restore Illinois plan.
Rethinking ways to reopen the schools does not mean denying the seriousness of COVID-19 and the global pandemic, DeVito said, echoing the speakers’ sentiments to move in a direction that promotes in-person instruction while still following safety measures.
“I’m not saying it’s not real. Of course it is,” DeVito said. But the isolation that her child has endured during the monthslong health crisis is also real, she said. “You have to think about more than just the virus," she said.