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After Months Of Hybrid Learning, A Staff Outbreak And Rising County Numbers Push RPS Remote

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Susan Stephens
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After talking to school nurses and staff, Mel Gilfillan thought the Winnebago County Health Department’s statement that there were cases but no spread of the virus in schools was wishful thinking.

He’s the president of the Rockford Education Association. Those concerns were confirmed when Rockford Public Schools reported its first COVID-19 outbreak among staff at Spring Creek Elementary.

“The Spring Creek situation was just so shocking and upsetting to many people. And I think what it did was it just it stopped the zero percent spread in schools talk,” he said.

And there's just no way for him to tell staff that a hybrid schedule is 100% safe. Around a dozen staff members tested positive in a building of about 30 people. That incident plus rising county COVID-19 rates and fears of holiday surges sparked the district’s “adaptive pause” of in-person learning.

RPS is now transitioning to remote learning through January 4. As of now, the plan is to return to a hybrid schedule after that. But it’s tough to know if the holiday season will see more spikes of the virus.

Teachers will not be working from home, they’ll be teaching from their empty classrooms, despite pleas from the staff union.

Gilfillan said after Governor J.B. Pritzker announced mitigation efforts asking people who can work from home to do so, they thought it was important to give educators the option.

“Some people do have some family circumstances or kids who are now pulled out of school. And, you know, so just the ability to have the choice was a big deal to us,” he said.

Some educators do want to continue working inside their classrooms. Staff have had decent communication with the facilities department to take care of any lax in protocol or maintenance. Staff in some buildings reported few safety issues while others, like at Spring Creek, were vocal about their worries.

At the elementary level, 50% of students in the district have already been learning remotely this fall. Middle and high school students have been in a hybrid in-person and remote schedule. Gilfillan said that’s been especially stressful for educators to navigate.

He said the hybrid schedule has been very tough for high school teachers -- who may have up to 150 kids on their roster -- to keep up with. They’ve seen more success in elementary where families chose either in-person or remote.