RCS leader: 'School is very different'

A physical education class led by teachers Stephanie Eastin, right, and Mayra Rosado, fourth from left, laughs during a game of Four Square Friday morning outside J.W. Eater Junior High School in Rantoul. The class gives students a break from wearing face masks. Students also get other periodic outdoor breaks.

RANTOUL — Rantoul City Schools Superintendent Michelle Ramage was pleased with the first couple of weeks of the new school year, but conceded, “School is very different.”

“Things are going extremely well,” she said, but you know this isn’t a normal school year “when you look down the hallways (and) all the students are in class. The social (aspect) is happening in the classroom.

“At the junior you (normally would) see kids at lockers and having fun conversations. There is none of that. All of the socialization is in the classroom.”

“I’m not saying that’s good or bad,” Ramage said. “It’s not what school normally looks like.”

Eighth-grader Chase Roberts agrees with that. As he took a break outside on Friday while throwing a football to eighth-grade reading/language arts teacher Jeff Sampson, he said the changes were “weird” compared to how things used to be. Weird as in different.

The change has made for at least one positive. Ramage said student behavior “is at an all-time high.”

“Our students are doing very well,” she said. “That’s including even our junior high students.”

There have been some hiccups. Last Thursday, the district announced two students at J.W. Eater Junior High had tested positive for COVID-19.

In-school learning isn’t for everyone. Many parents kept their children home for remote learning over COVID-19 concerns. But remote learning is a struggle for some as well.

School officials continue to work with families having trouble with the at-home learning aspect.

“The part we are continuing to work on is the outreach to those families who are still learning the technology piece of the at-home learning,” Ramage said.

Some students need more one-on-one instruction.

“Some students aren’t as engaged, and we know our job is to figure out why,” Ramage said, adding that the kinks will be worked out, but people need to be patient it will happen.

Ramage said the early struggles weren’t a surprise. School officials knew some families would have trouble.

She said the remote-learning difficulty comes from a variety of things, ranging from not being used to the technology to the parents working during the day or children being at day care during the day, and the day care person is not providing support.

RCS is able to monitor whether remote-learning students are spending time learning using the RCS-supplied hot spots or doing something else. In at least one instance, they had to inform a parent their child was spending the time playing video games rather than doing school work.

“There are limits on the hot spot,” Ramage said. “It connects only to (a Chromebook supplied by the district). We can know what families are doing with our hot spots. We know what sites they’re on and how much time. The ‘fun’ conversations are to tell the parent, ‘Did you know the child was on this website for three hours?’”

She said the parents’ reactions have been good. They are thankful and supportive when told of their child’s actions.

Some families have decided neither method is for them and have pulled their children out of school and are teaching them at home. Early figures showed 163 fewer children had been enrolled than at the same time last year.

Ramage said it has been “an interesting evolution” for teachers instructing in the classroom while at the same time being viewed online.

“There are some students who can’t join us live,” Ramage said. “They have to be able to access us, so some teachers are recording their lessons. It’s a little unnerving for teachers to watch themselves teaching. That’s a little odd.”

There are some teachers doing this in their first year of teaching, while others are in their last year on the job.

Teachers and students making themselves heard is also different wearing a mask. They have to enunciate clearly.

Breaks and physical education classes give the students and teachers a respite from having to wear a face mask all day. The outdoor breaks vary by building. Ramage said breaks last 10 to 15 minutes. And students spend the time socializing (at a distance) with teachers.

Last Friday at the junior high eighth-grader Mya Staton was spending the break talking with eighth-grade math/science teacher Heather Benz.

“It’s kinda good,” Staton said of wearing a mask in class. “The classrooms are cold, so it’s not real hard to breathe.”

Meantime, in an area north of the school, PE teachers Stephanie Eastin and Mayra Rosado were having fun with students playing Four Square.

Ramage said “surprisingly” there have been few incidents in which students say they can’t wear a mask for long periods.

“There were just a handful of students who couldn’t handle the masks and are now learning 100 percent at home,” Ramage said.

Students who take all of their lessons remotely are in the Learn Academy, while the other students are in the BlendEd Academy, which splits students into A Day and B Day groups. Each student attends two days of classes for four hours in the morning. A Day students attend Tuesdays and Thursdays, while B Day students are in class Wednesdays and Fridays. All students are required to have at least five hours of instruction a day, so they will do additional hour of work at home in the afternoon in a variety of subjects ranging from PE to music to art online as well as some additional core work.

Ramage said RCS took “a huge shift” in how it did transportation. Instead of one bus with 75 students going to multiple stops, it now goes to just one stop with no more than 12 students, and the maximum bus ride lasts 15 minutes. In addition to the bus driver, an additional adult (a teacher’s assistant) rides each bus to make sure students stay in their assigned seats.

“All of our buses are being used,” Ramage said. “At the junior high it’s two routes. It will be an increased cost of business, but it was what we needed to do.”

Ramage said she has appreciated the number of parents who drive their children to school or make arrangements to get them there.