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Villa Grove schools planning for unprecedented times

By Tony Hooker
The coronavirus pandemic has impacted all aspects of life.

Here in Villa Grove, our school, the heart and soul of our town, has been impacted profoundly, and so it seemed like a perfect time to check in with the administrative team of Sara Jones and Bobby Beck, the high school and elementary school principals, who with superintendent Norm Tracy’s decision to re-retire after coming in to help the district in a time of need, are in the unprecedented position of having to try to hire his replacement while sheltering in place, along with continuing the largest capital project in the past fifty years with the new gym and classroom construction project in addition to overseeing a switch to home/online schooling for the entire student body.

Is the construction project proceeding as scheduled?

<SJ> Yes it is!

How has this social distancing gone, as a district?

<SJ> We got word probably a week prior that the school could potentially close, so Mr. Tracy called me and Bobby in and said “Hey, why don’t you prep your teachers and get them ready for two weeks of work.”   

<BB> It was Tuesday, because we met with staff, and that’s when the NCAA and the NBA cancelled, so we came back on Wednesday and knew that it was going to be a thing, so I sent out an email to staff saying to put together what they could into a packet. 

What is the process then?  Are the kids attending school virtually?

<SJ> My junior high and high school kids all have Chromebooks and most of our students have internet access, so they’re working through Google classroom.  Each teacher has set up things for them to do.  The first few weeks are set up for review, but a few of our classes, especially our upper level classes are continuing to go ahead, working on the things they’ll need for college. Those tend to be smaller groups.  

<BB> The State of Illinois has declared these days as “Act of God” days, so they’re not counted as instruction days, so there are some districts that aren’t doing anything right now. As an administration team felt like it was important that our students stay actively engaged in learning. In the elementary school, we don’t have Chromebooks, so starting March 30, with the state not determining if those days will be declared remote learning days, we aren’t sure what the material has to look like.  Our teachers are putting together learning packets for the next two weeks, and we’ll pass those out on Monday. We’ve sent out an email to our parents about that.  It’s really hard for some of our students who don’t have internet capabilities to learn on their own, but our teachers are trying to reach out to our parents through email and we’re looking at things like google meet to be able to at least video chat with parents and students about questions.  

What sort of accommodations would you like you to share about those folks who don’t have internet access?

Everything should be able to be done at home without the internet.  Our teachers are making some resources available online because it is a great resource for those students who can access it.  

<SJ> Those students who don’t have internet access will have the same things available in a hard copy. I want to say that 100 percent of the pre-k through eighth grade students picked up their packets the first round.  Kudos to the parents and grandparents who came in and picked up their packets on the first Monday.  The high school kids came in and picked up their books.  I’d say at least 80 percent of those kids have come in and picked up their materials.  I’ve been sending out emails and we’ve had a good percentage of our kids checking those.  The teachers are checking those emails, they’re still working but they’re working from home.  

Are there any really innovative things that your teachers are doing that you would like to highlight?

<SJ> I know that Ms Wertz is doing virtual labs.  All of the elementary teachers are doing a great job of reading their in class book every day like they would normally.  Bobby’s been doing a good job of doing announcements every day, and his teachers have been reading a book and I know the kids have loved that.  

<BB> I know a lot of our teachers are using classDojo to keep in touch. Kelly Vail is continuing to read to her class. Katie Smith is using Dojo also. I think a lot of our teachers are using technology to reach out to our students.  I know there are a lot of programs out there to get our students access to the internet, but I’m just not sure how available they are in the Villa Grove area. 

<SJ> I know that a few teachers are recording themselves doing things and then sending out the videos.  There have been lots of discussions on Google Classroom.  Classes like Sociology and Psychology are more discussion oriented anyway, so there’s been a lot of that.  

<BB> The elementary isn’t set up for Google Classroom yet, but all of our students have email addresses that we’ve created, but not all of them are activated.  But if this were to continue, I might activate those email addresses for the younger grades and then let the parents know how to access those accounts if we would have to go to the Google Classroom format.  

<SJ> We have had a few complaints that because everyone everywhere is streaming right now, that it’s slow.  We’re also trying to give the kids time to decompress from all of this because this is pretty overwhelming emotionally for everyone.  I wish the sun would come back out, because that seems to help everyone’s mood.  We’ve talked about it in meetings that although we want academics to be important, we also want to take care of them emotionally.  As you can imagine, the seniors are having a hard time. 

<BB> Amber Osborne, our elementary school counselor, is providing a lot of resources on her district web page and sending them out to our teachers to send to their students. How to stay socially engaged, and how to deal with stress during these times.  You can get to her page by going to the elementary section on our school web page. 

You’re continuing the early morning breakfast program as well?

<SJ> Yes, I want to give Kudos to Cathy Raymer. We came in on the Saturday before we closed the campus and got everything ordered.  The Tuesday when we were out, we did a first round, because we weren’t sure how many kids would need that, and then we did Wednesday, Thursday and Friday meals, both here and in Camargo, we take meals there as well, and so they can pick up at either place.  Every Monday, we’re putting together snack packs, which are like a full bag of food and we’ve had really good turnout. We’ll have a sterilization time for those packets that are turned in, as well as those that we send out.  

Is there any hope that sports might return this season?

<SJ> IHSA sent out a release stating that they’re still hopeful and we’re hopeful that we’ll be back by May, and if we have to, we’ll continue into June.  We’re hopeful that we’ll have some sort of a season.

Is there anything that you would like to add?  Has a decision been made on commencement?

<SJ> I just want the kids to know that if we have to wait until July, we’ll have graduation in July. I really want those kids to have that opportunity.  We’re really hopeful that we’ll get back in May and we get to do Honors Banquet and Prom and all of this stuff that should be the highlight of their high school career. I would remind parents to continue to check their emails.  We’ll continue to send lots of emails and put up facebook posts.  As soon as we get updates, we’ll share them. We just ask that everyone be patient. Our favorite word is ‘unprecedented’.  If something isn’t what they think it should be, let us know. Our teachers aren’t trying to overwhelm our students.  If there’s too much or too little, just let us know.  Everyone on our staff has just been outstanding. Our custodial staff has sanitized everything, and after we let our teachers into their classrooms today, they’ll have to do it all again.  We’ve got a great team here. 

You’re coaches for spring sports are sending workouts to their athletes?  

They are, they’re sending them out to keep those kids motivated.  Honestly, I think if the weather would improve I think it would help the kids because they could get out and do some activities.  The day that it was nice, I saw so many people out on their bikes, and walking. 

<BB> I would also say that it’s important to stay patient, because we don’t want to put out any misinformation. The state is making sure that they meet all these different guidelines and expectations of what is expected from us as far as what the work needs to look like. We’re just trying to make sure that our students are actively engaged in learning, because if we do come back, we want them to be ready to go.  I don’t expect our students to sit there and do work for eight hours.  We want them to be a child.  This is something that they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives.  I want them to have fun with their families.  I want them to grab some books and read. That’s the biggest thing, if they can read, that would be a huge part.

<SJ> One thing that’s pressing for our juniors is that they’re supposed to take the SAT on the 14th. I was supposed to hear from the College Board on March 25, but I’ve heard nothing. I’ve heard some things from the ISBE stating that they think that they’ll happen in the fall, but I’ve heard nothing definitive.  

Anything else you would like to add, Mr. Beck?

<BB> Encourage students to reach out to us or reach out to their teachers if they have any questions.  

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