D65 board members talk e-learning, food distribution

District+65+board+president+Suni+Kartha.

Daily file photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

District 65 board president Suni Kartha.

Eva Herscowitz, Reporter

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 board members discussed e-learning, distributing free or reduced meals and disinfecting schools at a Monday board meeting. In accordance with Illinois’ stay-at-home order, the meeting was held via remote conferencing service Zoom.

On March 13, the last day of in-person instruction, students with limited or no access to technology were able to check out a limited number of Chromebooks. The district has since distributed 700 devices and over 200 hotspots to families, according to interim superintendent Phil Ehrhardt.

District 65 schools will remain closed until April 12. Ehrhardt and co-interim superintendent Heidi Wennstrom halted in-person instruction and announced an e-learning plan that began March 16.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker designated March 17 through March 30 “Act of God” days. During this time, e-learning is optional and students won’t have to make up the days out of school. According to the Illinois State Board of Education, “Act of God” days require a condition beyond district control that poses a threat to health and safety of students.

Ehrhardt said District 65 is looking into plans for long-term remote learning. Families will receive districtwide updates from Interim Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction Stacy Beardsley and the District 65 website.

He added that District 65 is considering creating additional professional development opportunities to help staff members adjust to remote instruction, and the district’s technology team is “in the process” of developing e-learning training for parents. All students have already received e-learning packets.

“We’re not sure what the future holds on the timing of this,” Ehrhardt said. “We are planning beyond the ‘Act of God’ days and looking at how do we transition to a truly e-learning scenario.”

Families in the district can still receive free or reduced meals. School officials have been serving free cold breakfasts and lunches to children aged 1 to 18, and five days’ worth of meals are available for pickup Mondays. The meals are distributed 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at four locations: the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, the Robert Crown Community Center, Kamen Park and Mason Park. Participants must eat meals off-site, and no residency or income-based restrictions are required to participate in the program.

The district didn’t order a sufficient amount of meals Monday, but officials are restocking later this week and fine-tuning distribution, board president Suni Kartha said.

The district is considering meal delivery to assist families without transportation access and to promote safety. Currently, no officials working at distribution sites ensure families are social distancing, board member Rebeca Mendoza said.

Mendoza also said the board should publicize that free meals are available to all families, not just those that qualify for free or reduced meals.

“There isn’t a shortage of food,” Mendoza said. “If your family does really need meals, please come and get the meals. This isn’t a time for you to hoard resources or to think that there won’t be more meals available within the weeks to come.”

Prior to Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, custodians received safety training and equipment and began cleaning schools and playgrounds. Cleaning will resume when custodians are “authorized to do so,” according to Ehrhardt.

For healthcare employees and other workers exempted from the state’s stay-at-home-order, the Evanston Early Childhood Council is considering spearheading childcare, according to Kartha.

Board members also discussed districtwide finances and payroll for employees. The nearly 80 employees who still receive paper checks are now required to collect their checks at Byline Bank’s drive-through window to reduce physical contact.

In line with orders from state superintendent of education Carmen Ayala, District 65 will continue to pay transportation personnel and long-term substitutes. The district will pay short-term substitutes by calculating their average workload over the past two to three months and developing a formula for compensation.

Ehrhardt said the district is continuing to brainstorm solutions to ensure students have an equal opportunity to learn.

“That’s still a technology access issue,” Ehrhardt said. “Hopefully with the devices that we distributed to our students in grades six, seven and eight, and the hotspots we’re using for distance learning, students will have enough access to participate.”

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