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School district to seek online learning waiver : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
School district to seek online learning waiver
Board votes 4-0 to file request with state; decision expected this fall

by Natalie Stevens


To boost its online learning program, the Oswego School District will seek a waiver from the State of Illinois that now requires district students to spend at least five hours in class under direct teacher supervision.

The school district board voted 4-0 Monday evening to submit the waiver request to the state.

However, attorney Laura A. Weizeorick, who is working with the district on the waiver, told the board their favorable vote was "only the first step in the process."

If approved, the waiver would seek to reduce the daily instruction class time of students who participate in online courses through the school district. This would allow more flexibility for students to take online courses and for the program to grow, according to school district officials.

Currently there are four online classes offered for high school students, although only three will run during the fall semester due to a lack of enrollment, according to Dr. Judy Minor, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.

The move to online learning would also allow the district to "compete with the charter schools," Weizeorick said.

However, the school district would not run their virtual learning like charter schools have, Dr. Paul O'Malley, associate superintendent, said.

Calling the charter schools' progress "abysmal," O'Malley said district students would be supported so "we have a trajectory to success."

He said online learning would transition "hand in hand" with the district's teachers to have a blended model.

The district is currently looking at two different options, both of which would allow the district to continue to receive General State Aid (GSA) without any monetary losses, Weizeorick explained.

The waiver for both options would allow students to take up to 40 percent of their classes online without any loss of GSA funding.

Option one would seek a reduction to the required five hours of direct supervision, and instead propose only three hours for the students receiving 40 percent of their class work online.

Three hours in the traditional classroom would be reported to the state as a full day for GSA purposes, Weizeorick said, and online would not be reported.

According to board documents, over the past 15 years the ISBE has approved three waivers allowing for reductions to the five hour day. Under this option, students would be limited to two hours of online learning per day.

The second option provides more flexibility, said Weizeorick, but has a "less predictable" outcome with the ISBE.

This option would, rather than seek a reduction in hours, would seek an exception. That means the district would still have a five hour requirement, but that three hours would be reported as a traditional classroom and online learning would be reported every hour as one-fifth an hour for GSA purposes.

The district would be responsible for tracking online hours and reporting them at the end of each month. This option would allow students to take classes outside of normal hours - like on holidays, weekends and teacher institute days, Weizeorick said.

However, the ISBE has never received or approved a waiver under this section. The waiver was modeled off of the remote student act, which lends it some "historical precedence," Weizeorick said.

Board member Matt Bauman asked if there had ever been a waiver of this nature approved anywhere in the country, and Weizeorick said that a district in Michigan had a similar waiver granted.

"We did model the waiver after (Michigan's)," Weizeorick said.

For both waiver options teachers would be able to place parameters to control the pace of the courses.

"It would prevent students from finishing early and have a set amount of hours they are required to be online," Weizeorick said. Teachers would also be able monitor student progress to make sure they were on target, and could implement more classroom time for an individual student if it would help.

"It would allow students to move forward at a different pace," board president Bill Walsh said. He commented that the waiver would allow student athletes to have more flexibility in managing their time.

The deadline for the district to submit the waiver is Aug. 15. If it is approved by the ISBE, it would be submitted to the General Assembly on Oct. 1 and the district would hear back within 60 days if the waiver was approved or denied.

If the waiver moves forward, it will come back to the board in the form of "policies and procedures," O'Malley said, which the board will need to approve.

This process is what the state currently does, Walsh said, as GSA is provided but the ISBE does not provide policies on how to educate students to the district.

However, even if the waiver is approved, the district can still choose whether or not to implement the program.

The Oswego School District invited community members to a public hearing that took place during the meeting to share their thoughts on the waiver application.

Only one community member spoke, Debbie Brown, the secondary adviser to the Oswego Education Association (OEA).

Brown said she had a few points she wanted the district to consider with the move towards online learning. She asked that OEA teachers have the first opportunity to teach the online classes, and for the district to not go "looking outside."

She also wanted to make sure there would be no impact on OEA teachers and that the OEA would be a part of further discussion with the administration or subcommittees on online learning and its impact on teachers and students.

"I know it's progressive, but if we don't do this and don't support this motion we can't even have a discussion to go further," Walsh said. "The waiver opens up a lot of flexibility for students and still allows funding for the district to support all students, whether virtually or inside the buildings."

The board voted unanimously 4-0 to approve the application to the waiver. Board members Walsh, Bauman, McDowell and Paul voted in favor, and members Swanson, O'Neil and Lightfoot were absent.

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