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On July 14th, we sat down with Chrisman Superintendent James Acklin to ask the questions that parents are wanting answered about the upcoming school year.
Q: Are there any new academic clubs that Chrisman has planned for this year?
A: I don’t think there’s anything new. That you might have to confirm with Mr. Huber. I know that last year, we approved E-sports, which isn’t an academic club. It’s a new club we’ve added since I’ve been here. I don’t think so. You might want to check with Mr. Huber to be sure.
Q: Are there any activities the students can do? Not necessarily academic.
A: The board voted to add back Junior High Baseball. That was approved last month. Something that will be considered tonight (this was done before the board meeting) is a football co-op with Georgetown-Ridge Farm, so we’ll see how that goes. My gut feeling is they will probably approve that. There was some real positive initial reaction to that, but we’ll see. It wouldn’t involve a large number of our student athletes, between six and ten. I think the board’s feeling is that if we can provide an opportunity for kiddos that they currently don’t have and it’s not too cost prohibitive, then we ought to look into it. E-sports, we added last year. I’m trying to think if there’s anything else and I don’t think so.
Q: Academically, what do you hope for the students to achieve this year?
A: Well, I think going back to last year, I think that the students who chose remote learning in some cases fell behind. Not every case, but in some cases fell behind. I do know that because of the fact we were out early everyday, there was less instructional time. You add up forty-five minutes and multiply that by the school year, there’s a lot of loss of instructional time there. We’re really excited to get back to the eight to three so we can get a full day. In that regard, I would hope that we’re more back to normal as far as no loss learning time and pushing everyone of our students along that continuum as we can. They all come in at different levels of expertise and their different subject areas. As educators, our goal is to take them wherever they are and push them along that continuum as far as we can in the time we get them. It was frustrating last year to not have that full day. We could tell they weren’t where they had been previous years. That being said, I feel really good about being in session everyday, with all of our kiddos from day one. Some schools chose to go remote right out of the gate and some schools chose to be in session every other day. Fortunately, we had the space to spread kiddos out, so I feel pretty good about where we ended up in comparison to other schools around us. But, the hard reality is there was some lost learning because we were out early everyday. So, we’re looking forward to being on a more normal schedule.
Q: What are you looking forward to coming back?
A: A full day. It was tough in both buildings, this one and the elementary, you felt like you were just kind of just getting going, then all of a sudden, it was time to get on the bus and go home. I know talking to the teachers, they felt like they were a little more rushed. At the elementary level, we didn’t have a music teacher. Our part time music teacher resigned. We didn’t find a replacement. In the end, it was better for the core subject areas because we didn’t have to carve that time out of the day. I think that the elementary teachers are very much looking forward to getting back in the curriculum. We did get a part-time teacher hired. We’re really encouraged to put that back in the curriculum. Not all kids like music, but its an example of an opportunity that our kiddos weren’t getting last year. Some kids really thrive on extras so to speak that are taught beyond the core curriculum. Didn’t have time for that last year, so now with a full day, we will have time for that. Our kids will be getting a more well rounded education.
Q: Is there any new additions to the curriculum? High School or Elementary?
A: There’s been some changes, but again, that would be more of a Mr. Huber question. I know that our new art teacher has asked for some classes to be approved and those have been. I know that there are for sure some changes to the art curriculum that will be more reflective of what kiddos are interested in right now, using technology for example. I would have to defer to Mr. Huber on that. No new curriculum, but there are some new classes that are being offered in at least the art program and one other.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk about new things being introduced in schools, like the Critical Rate Theory, will that ever be taught here? What are your thoughts on that?
*CRT: There are five major components or tenets of CRT: (1) the notion that racism is ordinary and not aberrational; (2) the idea of an interest convergence; (3) the social construction of race; (4) the idea of storytelling and counter-storytelling; and (5) the notion that whites have actually been recipients of civil rights legislation*
A: I don’t have a crystal ball. Boy, that’s a loaded question. You know from living here, it’s a very conservative community. Our curriculum, if we are given local control for the most part reflects those conservative values. I would say that some of the CRT and some of the more woke curriculum that’s being proposed and may be being adopted in bigger school systems and more urban systems is not going to be adopted here anytime soon. To ask if its ever going to be taught, I can only tell you that I don’t see that one the immediate horizon. Forever is a long time.
Q: Have you heard about SB818?
A: You’ll have to tell me.
*Keeping Youth Safe and Healthy Act (SB 818) creates personal health and safety standards for grades K-5 and updates and expands comprehensive sexual health education standards in grades 6-12 to give young people the information and tools they need to be safe and support responsible and informed decision making about their health and well-being throughout their lives. These topics include but are not limited to: anatomy and physiology; healthy relationships; identity; personal safety; pregnancy and reproduction; puberty, growth and adolescent development; and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV*
A: Keep in mind, we have to follow state law. I think there are ways to follow state law without upsetting folks in regard to the local expectations and standards.
Q: There’s some schools that give the kids a book called ‘It’s Perfectly Normal’. They give them that book and there’s some risky things in that.
*It’s Perfectly Normal’ was written by Robie H. Harris & Michael Emberley. This book has graphic content for children of any age.
A: I’m an old guy. I remember having, I’m not sure it was called sex ed back in the late 60’s. I can remember sex education in health class back in seventh and eighth grade. That goes way back. I think there’s ways to do that and make sure that you are aligning your school system with the expectations of the community. I’m all about local control. I don’t like top down, state mandated curricula.
I don’t like top down state mandated rules for COVID, which I’m sure you’re going to get into here in a little bit. I’m all about local control. That being said, if it’s state law, those are things that we have to follow. But I think we can do that in a way that’s not going to be upsetting the community. That’s where your school board essentially had to task itself with being that standard bearer of what the community expects. I’m very fond of saying that I work for them. As long as we have local control, it’s the local school board that’s making those decisions on how the curricula will be delivered. Hopefully, their decisions will be reflective of what the community wants.
Q: You said that school was going to be in session full time, would it possibly go back to half days?
A: We were more like 2/3 or 1/4 days. I think that all of this has been so fluid that we have to reserve the right to make adjustments on the fly if numbers dictate that. By the numbers, I mean if positive COVID cases in the school or the community spike up, we can’t be stubborn about that. We have to do something. Including going to full remote learning for a period of time. We were at that tipping point once last year in October. It wasn’t because we had a lot of kids out. We had a fair number of kids out. We had some active cases, but it was more that we had close contact and those people had to quarantine. Then we got to a point where we couldn’t find substitutes. Had we had one or two more teachers that had to quarantine, we would’ve probably hit our tipping point and we would’ve had to go remote for at least a couple of weeks to kind of get people off of quarantine and get back. We never had to do that. We were fortunate to never have any spike in numbers in our staff or students until that very last week of school and it hit us. I don’t know, maybe part of it was because we were lucky. Part of it may be that we are in a county that doesn’t have a very dense population. There’s only twenty thousand people in the whole county and most of those live in Paris. The fact that we’re very spread out helped us avoid that. I think maybe us as a community and a school, we kind of fell victim to think that we haven’t really had problems with it and we let out guard down, I don’t know. Then right there, that last week of school, we had the number spike up. I know some of the grade school classes were not able to have their parties and their last week send offs. It was just one of those things that was just ‘ok, we’re done here, we’re finishing remotely’. We hope to avoid that. Our plan is to be in session every day from 8-3, but kiddos and staff that haven’t been vaccinated by IDPH rules are going to have to quarantine if they’ve had close contacts. We might have to go remote.
Q: Will they have to wear a mask?
A: The answer right now as we sit here at 2:14 on Wednesday the 14th is masks will be optional. Some back story to that, it wasn’t just us coming to that conclusion on our own. When I sent out the information for this months board packet, which was sent out on the 7th, the ISBE said masks will not be optional for anyone, vaccinated or not. There were a couple of school districts in the southern part of the state, Red Bud, was one of them, I talked to the superintendent yesterday to get the backstory of it all. They had come out the previous month and their boards passed resolutions or at least made the statement publicly that they were not going to require masks and it would be optional. The ISBE got wind of that and they essentially wielded down a very heavy hammer and told that district as well as a couple of others and the word spread quickly that if that is the path you were going to go down, then ultimately that would affect your recognition status, which affects your ability to apply for any state or federal grant and ultimately affect your state funding. That’s a pretty heavy hammer.
Q: Have they backed up on that since then? I read that Pritzker said that it’s mandated for kids that don’t have the vaccine, but not for kids who do have the vaccine?
A: The CDC came out between the seventh or late last week, early this week and said anyone who has been vaccinated (talking about public schools), does not have to wear a mask. If you do not have the vaccine, it’s recommended, not required. As superintendents, we’re saying ‘ok, what does this mean?’. We need more clear guidance from the ISBE. They were asked a very simple question, yes or no, do we have to wear masks? And they wouldn’t answer it that way. They came back and said essentially we’re following the CDC guidance. Everyone is taking that to mean that for vaccinated people no masks, for unvaccinated people masks are recommended. As a local district, we can make the restrictions more stringent. We could require masks for everyone. We could require masks for those not vaccinated. Then that goes to ‘how would you know whose been vaccinated and who hasn’t’? Am I supposed to have a list that I carry around? I think that would be hard to administer. My recommendation will be and I think I know this board and this community and this will be adopted, my recommendation tonight (at the School Board Meeting July 14th) will be that we don’t require masks for anyone whose been vaccinated and recommend use of masks for those who haven’t. Recommended doesn’t mean required. I think that this board will adopt that. We’ve got five new board members, but I think their ideas are reflective of what the community’s ideas are. I think we need to leave ourselves some wiggle room in regard to if we get this big surge of COVID cases in school, we have to do something. Including mask usages or remote learning or more physical distancing, whatever that might be. Cole (Huber) did have contact with the EDPH (Edgar County Department of Health). Monica has confirmed everything that I’ve told you. She has said that masks can be made optional as long as our transmission rates say low. If the transmission rates in our school and community start to surge, then obviously we need to respond to that. We can’t be stubborn on that. They still recommend going with masks for unvaccinated people. Again, they’re not saying required, they’re saying recommended. They emphasize that we communicated from the get go that if the rate increases, masks could be mandated. People need to be aware of that. We’re going to be watching the numbers carefully, if the numbers change, the way we do business is going to change. This is interesting and seems contradictory to me. I would expect that we’re going to get more clarification between now and the beginning of school. Everything I’m telling you could change between now and the beginning of school. It’s been extremely fluid. She said masking on buses should be mandated, regardless of vaccination status. This is coming from the Edgar County Department of Health. This is the one thing the CDC said was not optional.
Again, that seems somewhat contradictory to me. I’m hoping to get more clarification between now and the beginning of school. She’s also going to get us information on a regular testing program. She said that this would be a really good idea and further warrant our desire to go masks recommended and not required. She said having everyone whose not vaccinated being tested one time a week would be a great idea. We’re going to look into that. We’re doing some testing on our own, we’re not testing everyone once a week. I would say that probably less than half of our JH/HS has been vaccinated. I do know that overall Edgar County is 32 percent. I’m guessing with the younger crowd it’s less than that. And anyone under 12, they’re not recommending a vaccine at this point. That’s at least half of our kiddos, so that’s 150 out of our 200. She’s still encouraging vaccinations and hosting vaccination clinics. I know I’m all over the place, but it all ties together from the standpoint that we’re talking about local control. What is good practice for the Chicago School System might not be good for the Chrisman School System. It’s an entirely different animal. We should be able to make those decisions based on health and well being of our kiddos ourselves with the idea that if things change, we’ll change. What I will recommend to the board, long story short, is we make masks recommended not required. Everybody has to know upfront if things change, they we’re going to have to make changes on the fly.