Rhonda Silence

ISD 166 gets pushback on distance learning decision

As WTIP reported earlier, on August 13, the School District 166 school board voted 4 to 1 to begin the 2020-2021 school year with distance learning. Yesterday, ISD 166 School Board Chair Dan Shirley made a statement explaining the decision. As he was making his announcement, a group of parents frustrated about the decision were making plans for a public show of opposition to the school board decision. The group is inviting other like-minded parents to gather for a rally to reopen school using the in-person learning model.

Board Chair Shirley wrote: “Cook County Schools Distance Learning 2.0 is rigorous, consistent, and safe. It has been designed with careful consideration of needed improvements over emergency distance learning conducted last spring and with the feedback of all stakeholders in the community. This does not mean that we will be in Distance Learning forever. It does not mean that we will be in Distance Learning all school year…

…Distance Learning will also allow us to ease into the school year in a manner where we can control the most variables. By beginning in the most restrictive model, we will be able to transition to hybrid and in-person learning in a controlled and safe manner. It has been shown time and time-again during this pandemic that opening too quickly and too aggressively has not gone well and resulted in much more illness, setting communities even farther back and creating longer, harsher restrictions. So far, Cook County has taken a very measured approach and has benefited from that.”

Pandemic Restrictions are an Opportunity for Community Strength

WTIP spoke with Stephanie Radloff, who has been outspoken about her desire to have children start the school year in person. Radloff was one of over a dozen parents who urged ISD 166 to start school in person at the August 6 special school board meeting. She said she is especially troubled after seeing Board Chair Shirley’s statement that the decision was made “on a majority basis and the entire Board supports the results and moves forward together in good faith.”

Radloff told WTIP that while the majority of the school board may agree that the school year should begin with distance learning, she believes the majority of students and families want to start school in person. She pointed out that a survey of ISD 166 families had 78 percent of respondents wanting in-person learning, as opposed to 22 percent of families opting for distance learning.

Radloff added that the ISD 166 decision is additionally frustrating for ISD 166 parents who see that Birch Grove Community School in Tofte is starting the year with a hybrid-learning model, with students in school Monday through Thursday and distance learning on Friday.

Oshki Ogimaag in Grand Portage is also planning to start the school year in person, stating that it is able to do so because of its small student population. Likewise, Great Expectations School is either starting in person or with the hybrid model. A formal decision for GES will be made at a school board meeting Thursday, August 20.

In addition to parents expressing the desire for students to return to school under the in-person learning model, several teachers have said they don’t agree with the Cook County Education Association’s stance preferring distance learning.

In a statement, four ISD 166 teachers wrote: “COVID-19 has presented almost every decision-making group with a “lesser of two evils” decision. We believe the decision to go to an immediate distance-learning model is the greater of two evils.”

The teachers–Andrew Feddema, Marly Wester Zimmer, Steven Anderson and Kayle Hielscher–cite the state guidelines for returning to school and note that under those guidelines, ISD166 is allowed to go back to school in a “controlled environment, implementing safety measures and social distancing to protect students and those at higher risk.”

The teachers also referred to a statement Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advisement that extended school closure is harmful to children, especially those with special needs.

Finally, the four teachers state that distance learning is depriving students of a quality education with the opportunity to be in the same room as highly qualified and skilled teachers and to interact with their friends. See the teachers’ letter here.
And although the decision has been made to begin the school year with a distance-learning model at ISD 166, Radloff and others are hoping for a change of heart at the upcoming school board meeting on Thursday, August 20. That meeting will be via Zoom starting at 5 p.m. Instructions for the public to observe can be found on the school’s website.

The rally to show support for reopening school at ISD 166 with the in-person learning model will be at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, August 19. Participants are invited to gather at Artist’s Point at 5 p.m. for a walk through Grand Marais.