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District 117 Remains Open During COVID-19

By this time of year, Sandy Szczygiel-Zeglin figures all four of her sons would have already had the flu or, at the very least, a cold.

But this year has been different. Much different.

Despite dealing with the COVID-19 virus, all four of the Zeglin boys - Daniel, fourth grade, Damian, first grade, Stanley, who starts kindergarten in the fall and Sebastian, just 2 - have remained healthy. And the two oldest have been participating in in-person learning the entire school year.

Mrs. Zeglin, a dual-language parent, credits North Palos District 117 for being one of the few school districts in the Chicagoland area to keep schools open while practicing numerous health and safety guidelines that have kept students, staff and parents safe.

“I’m so proud of District 117 for keeping schools open and allowing parents the option to have their kids learn in person,” she said. “I can’t thank the district administration, teachers and the board enough for staying open. And you guys did a great job communicating to the community what was happening.”

Mrs. Zeglin said people underestimate kids and what they are capable of doing. “People didn’t believe kids could wash their hands, keep their masks on and social distance. And they are not sharing supplies which is another huge reason kids have remained healthy. These are all just simple steps.”

She said she was reviewing her options if the district had not offered in-person learning. “We set up a whole learning room in our house for my kids to be home-schooled. A group of parents also thought about pooling our resources and hiring a private teacher.”

Fortunately, she and her friends didn’t need to hire a private teacher since District 117 offered in-person learning from the beginning of the school year. Class sizes and bus capacities were smaller than usual (to accommodate social distancing) and students washed their hands and used hand sanitizer more than they had in the past.

Parents were asked in a survey to select whether they wanted their children to attend in-person or remote learning. The only caveat was that whichever they chose, their children would have to remain there for one semester. 

Some parents chose to keep their children home and participate in remote or online learning. But many parents sent their children to school. 

In fact, parents from neighboring school districts whose kids were completely remote called the district office asking how District 117 was able to offer in-person learning. Individual districts made decisions based on what was best for their students.

District 117 Supt. Jeannie Stachowiak and the district’s administrative team met almost daily to come up with a school reopening plan that would keep student and teacher safety at the forefront while continuing to provide the quality education students and parents have come to expect in the district.

The team worked tirelessly preparing educational and operational protocols based on guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education as well as results from surveys sent out to district parents seeking their input.

The plan, which included input from staff and the community,  was also shared with board members, teachers, staff and parents.

District 117 Board President Dr. Tom Kostes said the decision to keep schools open was an easy one. (Dr. Stachowiak) and her team did a great job putting that plan together,” he said. “They spent a lot of time and effort devising a plan that covered all the bases and kept health and safety as top priorities.”

District 117 was one of only a handful of districts in the area that offered in-person instruction from the beginning of the school year. 

Fearing that high numbers of students would be infected by the virus, a majority of school districts shut their doors to in-person learning. 

According to MCH Strategic Data’s research on the COVID-19 pandemic (which covered 84 percent of the school district’s in the United States), District 117 was among the 19 percent of districts to offer in-person learning. 

Nearly a year later, some districts still have not opened their doors to in-person learning. District 117’s goal is to return all 3,500 students to in-person instruction in the fall while continuing to prioritize the health and safety of students, teachers, staff and families.

Mrs. Zeglin said she can’t wait for that to happen. But for now, she is thrilled that her kids are where they belong: In school.

“Kids need that personal interaction with their peers,” she said. “They’re kids.”

That’s where they belong. They adapt.”

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