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Local News

COVID-19 forces tough choices for Will County parents, students this school year

'I really don't know what's best'

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Christina Melesio has been weighing difficult decisions about how her children will return to school this year as the nation continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Melesio said that while she was able to work from home while her younger son and daughter began remote learning earlier this year, she’s afraid of them returning to school next month. She’s not comfortable with the idea of sending her children back into a school building with other kids, especially as cases have begun to rise again in Illinois.

Fortunately, she said, her daughter, who is entering the eighth grade, took to remote learning and performed well last year. But Melesio said she most worries for her son, Santos Lopez, who requires special education for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“Do I worry more about his health?” she said. “Or do I worry that he’s going to be even more behind?”

She said it was difficult to help him with his school work while still doing her own work from home, so remote learning was “completely out of the question” for them. Melesio said Joliet Public School District 86 told her that because her son has an individualized education program, he’d have to come to school four times a week. For Melesio, that’s a scary notion.

“I really don’t know what’s best,” she said.

District 86 Superintendent Theresa Rouse said administrators were still trying to get answers to a myriad of questions about how school will resume this year. The district already released its hybrid plan to mix in-person and remote instruction with an option for students to only do remote learning.

Rouse said that as the district reaches out to each of its about 8,000 families, there does seem to be an increasing interest in the remote-only learning model, simply because of the uncertainty about keeping students safe.

“We can do everything we can to make things safe,” she said, then added a “but,” emphasizing the uncertainty over kids physically returning to school.

“Nobody has an answer to those barriers as far as being able to ensure complete and total safety,” Rouse said.

This week, those uncertainties prompted the Illinois Federation of Teachers, a union representing more than 100,000 education professionals throughout the state, to call for schools to begin with remote learning.

In justifying its concerns, the IFT cited Illinois’ “unstable” COVID-19 positivity rate, the need for more contact tracing and an increase in cases among young people.

In Plainfield, District 202 teachers demonstrated to pressure their district board to begin the year with remote learning.

Many students and parents in the district also appear to be siding with the teachers. Jon Gilmore, an incoming junior at Plainfield North High School, said that after learning all he has about the pandemic, he feels remote learning is the safest option until a vaccine is available.

Gilmore said he’ll choose to do remote learning this year when District 202 comes up with a plan, even if he does miss his friends and participating in activities like the school musical.

“With [electronic] learning, I know everybody is going to be safe and not have those risks,” Gilmore said. “I don’t think there is a way for us to get back to school until we have a vaccine.”

Gabrielle Smith said she’s sent all four of her children through District 202 in Plainfield and her youngest son will be a senior at Plainfield Central High School this year.

Smith said she would want more than anything for her son to enjoy his senior year and play his last year of football, but the possibility of him getting sick weighs on her mind.

For Smith, its not just a theoretical concern. She said she likely got COVID-19 last week after one of her daughters returned from a trip out of town with friends and later tested positive. While Smith said she and her daughter were recovering, it made the danger truly hit home for her.

“I think about how I got it so fast and so furious,” she said. “You don’t think that’s going to happen in a classroom?”

Smith conceded that whatever districts do, there are going to be some stakeholders who will be upset, but she said her biggest concern was still her son’s health. She was critical of the federal government for its lack of leadership on the subject.

Without a more robust plan to contain the virus, Smith likened the idea of sending her child back to school to undergoing an experiment that she was unwilling to participate in.

“Well,” she said, “my child isn’t going to be a guinea pig.”

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