BERWYN – New Morton West High School Principal Kristy Cavanaugh doesn't yet have specifics on what school will look like this fall, but she does know one thing.
She can't wait to see people again.
Students, staff and faculty have remained connected virtually throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining the culture that Cavanaugh calls "Morton pride," but she knows it's no substitute for face-to-face contact.
"I'm excited for everybody to get back in the building, restoring, renewing, rebuilding those relationships," Cavanaugh said. "We've been apart for so long. People have been through so many things."
Cavanaugh, approved as Morton West principal in February, started in her new position July 1.
Previously the assistant principal of operations, she's spent her whole career in District 201. Cavanaugh, a 1994 Lyons Township graduate and Western Springs native, started in 2000 teaching social studies at the Morton Alternative School. She was there for eight years before becoming dean of students in 2009, and then assistant principal in 2011.
Cavanaugh said one of the disadvantages of rebuilding connections right now is normal channels are still up in the air. It is not yet known what student activities such as clubs and athletics will look like in the new school year.
"We want kids to be involved, we need to rebuild the connections that we have, but all of those large group things will have a different feel," Cavanaugh said. "That makes for creative thinking. I don't want to just focus on the challenges, but we would not be honest with each other if we didn't think there will be challenges."
Cavanaugh has three daughters with her significant other Bob, so she understands parents' eagerness for details on what fall learning will look like.
The Illinois State Board of Education together with the Illinois Department of Public Health on June 23 released guidelines for reopening. But other than encouraging districts to "maximize" in-person learning and requiring everyone in the building to wear face coverings, the 68-page document left a lot of room for local decisions.
"Which was not unexpected. Maybe it was wishful thinking a little bit that we'd get more guidance," Cavanaugh said. "I felt the same way about my own kids, that I couldn't wait to hear what the plan for the fall would be, but at the same time this is one of the things that is worth the wait so we can have clarity."
Cavanaugh expects to distribute information regarding what school will look like closer to the week of July 13. The district sent out a parent survey June 26 to get feedback from families. Cavanaugh said that part of the district's reopening plans have involved discussion with a committee comprised of faculty, administration and parents.
Even going back to the end of the past school year, the district was working on ways to learn from the experience, examining student grades and attendance data to reflect whether there were populations for which the district needed to make adjustments.
This year, the district offered two sessions of summer school, the first session ending July 8 and the second starting July 13. It was not designed as a credit recovery tool but rather to increase opportunities to stay connected.
Laptop distribution for the incoming freshman class will be next week.
Cavanaugh is working with her new assistant principal of operations to set the stage for the new school year, making sure families are registered for school, which is being done virtually.
"As a school district, we were in a good place when this pandemic happened," Cavanaugh said. "Kids were comfortable with technology, teachers were comfortable with technology, we have instructional coaches in place. Some of the things that other districts saw huge hurdles to overcome, we had the right direction. I feel like we learned some great things about instruction in terms of technology and innovation."
Cavanaugh said that even with the 68-page guidance from ISBE a lot of questions remain for districts to consider.
"We're looking at what the schedule will look like, what does classroom layout look like, lunch rooms, activities, just what does returning in person look like," Cavanaugh said. "There's all these considerations. You look at face coverings, as you say yes to those things a multitude of other questions come up. You don't want to rush into something."
Cavanaugh said one thing the experience has showed is one can make a plan and put it into place, but one must be prepared for changing circumstances.
"They [ISBE] have been clear that some things are a must, and in a large school they require extra thought, the how to, multiple scenarios, what will a day look like, simple things like where will we enter, are we staggering starts," Cavanaugh said. "The questions we have been discussing are kind of endless."
Even after decisions have been made for what school will look like, Cavanaugh said the school will need to have orientation on items such as wearing masks and social distancing to get everyone on the same page.
"It's a lot of teaching and learning for everyone, not just the kids," Cavanaugh said.
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