WHEATON – Wheaton-Warrenville Community Unit School District 200 has joined neighboring districts in delaying its first day of school, as officials work through myriad details of reopening during the coronavirus pandemic.

Students in the district will now return Aug. 25, eight days after the original start day of Aug. 17 on the district calendar. Earlier this week, Naperville Community Unit School District 203 and Indian Prairie District 204 announced that they were pushing back the start of school to the first week of September. On Friday, District 204 announced that it would go with fully remote instruction through October 30.

The District 200 board approved the modified schedule at its Wednesday board meeting.

"The discussion started out of our core team and a number of planning teams that were putting details together on what needs to happen to be ready to adjust all of our master schedules and have school ready to operate," Superintendent Jeff Schuler said. "Candidly we were simply running out of time with an Aug. 17 target. We need to do what we need to do to get schools ready to open."

Schuler said that there were additional costs to be able to open school under the district's plan with PPE needed, lower class sizes and additional staff. The school board has tentatively allocated $1 million in contingency funds to support reopening the district's 20 buildings.

"I think we'll need every bit of that contingency as we work through it," Schuler said.

The district unveiled the plans for the 2020-21 school year at its July 8 board meeting. Elementary school children will return to school daily, with middle and high school students in school two days a week, separated into two groups alphabetically, and learning remote the rest of the week in the blended model. 

The four-part plan also includes virtual options for families who prefer e-learning. Under the fourth plan, all levels would shift to e-learning in the event of a resurgence of COVID-19 cases. 

Schuler reported that 93% of students were registered as of Wednesday, with 79 percent of that total selecting an option that includes in-person instruction. Another 19 percent, or just under 2,200 students, selected the fully remote option with an additional 2 percent pursuing options outside the district.

Grade-wise, 75 percent of elementary students plan to return for in-person learning, while 81 percent of middle schoolers and 83 percent of high school students selected the hybrid model.

Schuler noted that it is "entirely possible" that COVID-19 data on a regional or state level could move school districts right back into remote learning, "but we are ready."

One board member, citing the "big picture" of expanded COVID-19 problems, the recent spike in cases of the virus statewide and other area districts such as Plainfield and Barrington that have opted for full remote learning, expressed concern about reopening schools under these conditions.

"I think we've done an outstanding job getting ready for school," board member Jim Mathieson said. "My bigger concern is that outside of the school which has to enter into the conversation we may be entering into another phase of expanded COVID problems. I'm not convinced that right now we should be proceeding in the direction of reopening everything like we are. I think many districts around us are speculating if they should do that.

"I'd prefer to see this reopen happen when numbers are going down. With everything going on it's a real problem right now, I wish we could solve it and the only way I see us solving it is delaying a full blown reopen."

Other board members, though, approved of the choice that the district's plan provides.

Schuler said that a decision to take a step back and go remote would happen in consultation with the DuPage County Health Department. He said he is in conversation twice a week with the health department and other area superintendents in understanding the data.

"Where that will be two weeks from now, I don't know," Schuler said. "Knowing where we are now, I'm comfortable with this plan. If that changes, we'll pivot."

District officials reported that they've started the process to staff the "virtual academy" e-learning option with faculty and staff who have submitted physician's notes restricting them from in-person learning, with July 31 the target date to complete virtual academy staffing. The district is working with staff who have medical restrictions and are not needed for virtual instruction on their options for the school year.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Operations Bill Farley reported on the safety protocols, which are being put in place for in-person instruction.

All buildings will be equipped with plexiglass partitions, all classrooms will have hand sanitizer, wipes, disinfectant bottles and paper towels. Custodians will disinfect bathrooms at least twice a day in addition to their normal cleaning schedule, and the district will purchase handheld sprayers for enhanced disinfecting every night.

Schuler also said that there will be marked spaces in hallways, stairwells and other areas to assist the flow of traffic, and the district will provide face coverings for students and staff as well as face shields if requested.

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