MENDOTA - On July 22, the District 280 Board of Education approved a plan for Mendota High School students to return to the classroom for the fall semester. But when MHS students begin classes on Aug. 14, it will not be school as usual.
Superintendent Jeff Prusator emphasized that part of the reason MHS was able to create a plan for in-person learning was due to the newer age of the building and a lower enrollment, which allows for social distancing. He pointed out that many other school districts do not have that advantage, which is why the state left the decision for returning to school up to each district. “This is a balancing act, and there is no perfect plan,” he said. “But if we didn’t feel it was safe, we wouldn’t do it.”
Prusator explained that the maximum capacity at MHS is 750 students and the current enrollment is only 518. “There is more space at MHS than there is at other schools,” he said. “We wouldn’t be able to have this plan if our enrollment was higher, if we were at full capacity, because it would be hard to socially distance.”
Although class sizes will be the same as usual at MHS, student desks will be spread out in a 4 by 4-foot area and everyone will be required to wear a mask (medical exemptions for masks will be determined case-by-case). Students and staff will all be issued three washable masks or they may use masks brought from home.
To maximize space, classrooms will only have student desks and the teacher’s work table or desk. Classrooms will be cleaned with an electrostatic sprayer each day and Prusator noted that there will also be spray bottles of disinfectant cleaner and paper towels in all rooms that can be used for cleaning throughout the day. In addition, maintenance staff will consistently clean door handles and other frequently touched surfaces.
Another safety precaution at MHS is the ability through their HVAC system to change out all the air in the building every two hours, which meets the recommendations for air quality and circulation.
Students will attend school Monday through Friday, but the school day will be held in a block schedule. This means classes will meet every other day for 85 minutes rather than being held every day for a shorter period. This will minimize the amount of time spent in hallways and also gives teachers time to take students outside for a 10-15 minute “mask” break during the class period.
The days are designated as Purple Days in which students will attend four classes for 85 minutes (periods 1, 3, 6 & lunch, 7) and then alternate with Gold Days when students attend three different classes and period 8 intervention for 84 minutes (periods 2, 4, 5 & lunch, 8).
This schedule will also provide teachers with more daily professional development time without eliminating their time with students. Students will be dismissed by 2:35 p.m. each day and teachers will be encouraged to collaborate in lesson development from that time until 3:20 p.m. The same schedule will also be used for remote learning, if needed, during the school year.
Prusator said the school building will open at 7:30 a.m. and everyone coming in will have their temperature checked and be asked self-certification questions regarding their health and any close contact they have had with anyone who has tested positive or is suspected of having COVID-19.
He noted that student arrival times are naturally staggered and only two doors will be open. Students riding the bus or being dropped off by car will enter through the front doors of the school. Juniors and seniors will park in the back lot and enter through the gym doors only.
The block schedule also allows for staggered dismissal times in which seniors and some juniors will be able to leave before the remainder of the students. “We don’t want everyone leaving at the same time and large groups of people gathering,” Prusator said.
When work began on creating a re-opening plan in early June, the MHS Cares Committee was divided into three groups, one to cover core subject areas; another for subjects such as consumer science, industrial arts, choir and band; and the third for transportation, cafeteria, nurse, school resource officer and administration. After the first month, the entire committee began meeting together. “The three committees were totally professional and totally committed. Each one brought something to the table and I commend them for that,” Prusator said. “It was a difficult process because we would think we were getting somewhere and by the end of the meeting ended up with more questions than answers.”
MHS parents were also sent a survey asking whether they preferred in-person instruction, hybrid (part in-person, part remote) or remote learning only. About 40 percent of MHS parents (213) responded: 39.7 percent preferred hybrid (part in-person, part remote); 38.1 percent preferred in-person only; and 18.6 percent wanted remote learning only.
A survey of the MHS Cares Committee, which included over 20 members, was: 66 percent preferred in-person only and 33 percent wanted hybrid. No one in the committee was in favor of remote learning to start the school year.
There is an option for parents who do not want their student to return to the classroom to request remote learning for the semester. Prusator said the committee thought it was important to make that available and so far, about 10 parents have asked about it. He explained that there is a real concern about the learning deficit that was experienced by students because of the sudden, unexpected move to remote learning last spring. “Remote learning was a failure; the kids lost a semester,” he said. “It happened so quickly, we weren’t prepared. If you have a deficit for one semester and then you add a second semester, it compounds the deficit. It’s a real concern. There is really no substitute for being in the classroom with a teacher.”
But Prusator also emphasized that MHS is now much better prepared to provide remote learning if that becomes necessary or for students who choose that option first semester. The school has a web-based curriculum that is approved by ISBE and includes subjects such as Algebra I and Algebra II. He noted that remote learning students will be held to the same standards as those attending in person and will be monitored for attendance by Steve Hanson.
“At our last committee meeting, we also had two board members join us,” Prusator said. “The board of education had the final decision on the plan and all six members attending the July 22 board meeting gave unanimous approval. Jason Motter was absent, but he was also in favor of the plan.”
Although MHS now has a plan in place, Prusator cautioned, “This plan was presented on July 22, but it could all change at any time. Right now, it seems the (COVID) numbers are going in the wrong direction.”
Other items included in the MHS plan follow. To see the entire MHS re-opening plan online, go to mendotahs.org or to their Facebook page.
MHS expects to receive $205,000 through the CARES Act, which will help offset the expense of additional cleaning, enhanced professional development and other safety precautions.
While there are many unknowns for potential situations that could arise in the coming months, Prusator said if a student or staff member were to test positive for COVID-19, the LaSalle County Health Department would then take over and provide the school with a plan going forward.