There may be one, small, sliver of a silver lining to Illinois school buildings being closed due to COVID-19 concerns.
It’s allowing contractors to make hay on Monticello’s $35 million building project while students are away.
“Being able to continue the school construction project has been good for us, because they are able to get some things done they were not able to get done while school was in session,” said Monticello School Superintendent Vic Zimmerman at the March 25 school board meeting, which six of seven members attended remotely due to the current coronavirus outbreak.
“That’s one positive, if there is one, regarding this closure,” he added.
For example, contractors have been able to remove tile from high school hallways during the outage, an effort that was slated for this summer.
Looking at the financial numbers, the construction project is more than 50 percent complete, with $19.5 million paid out on the $35 million project. About 80 percent of the new construction is complete.
Those new areas include an elementary school classroom addition, a two-story science wing at the high school, and a new gymnasium at the Washington Elementary/High School campus. Renovation work at the existing high school will dominate the project for the next year, with completion by the start of 2021-22 the goal.
To give contractors more time during the summer for renovation, classes are not slated to start next school year until Sept. 1. Board member Sarah Ross asked if things could get going earlier since some of the renovations may be ahead of schedule.
Zimmerman said that could be discussed, but was concerned the business shutdowns could delay shipments of construction materials and erase gains made while students are currently out of school.
“I do not anticipate a scenario where the calendar will be changed,” he clarified.
Most of the contractors have worked through the current COVID-19 related shutdowns. One was off the job for two days while consulting with attorneys on whether to allow workers to venture out during the current executive order, which limits business operations to essential services only.
Zimmerman checked with district attorneys, who felt construction could continue at least until the March 25 board meeting, where the board gave the authority to continue.
“I’m O.K. with leaving it up to the contractors,” said board member Kevin Frye. Zimmerman agreed, saying that was the assumption he starts with when decisions are made.
As for the project itself, work is being done to finish up the new construction, such as lighting, paint and acoustical tile in the Washington addition and new gym. Cabinetry has been installed in the science wing, and corridor lighting is up next.
The board approved a change order for $17,342. It includes several items, the largest being a $10,865 addition in flooring. Zimmerman explained it will include a vinyl overlay of tile flooring, instead of removal of the tile that contains asbestos.
“I don’t like the idea that we’re having asbestos tile underneath the existing flooring, but I will say that Illinois is one of only a few states that still requires asbestos tile to be removed, so I think if we hold out long enough maybe Illinois will change that law and we will not have to worry about that tile underneath,” he said.
“The major reason for the decision is it is much less costly to change the flooring type than to remove the asbestos tile and put in flooring,” added Zimmerman.
More closure updates
Zimmerman said teachers have been keeping in contact with students in addition to posting learning plans online. Since the state-mandated closures are “act of God” days that do not need to be made up, no new material is being presented and grades are not being assessed.
Teachers are also making themselves available from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day while schools are shut down.
“It’s worked amazingly well,” said the superintendent.
Chromebook distribution could occur later this week. Those without internet at home will be provided with portable hotspots, of which the school district ordered 50 to fulfill that need.
Cafeteria staff distributed 400 lunch bags in a first distribution on March 23, something that will be a weekly event until schools reopen.
Although schools could reopen April 8, Zimmerman thought the outage would likely be extended.
“I’ll just say it right now, I don’t see any way that we can return April 8th, because the stay-at-home from the Governor ends April 7. I would expect the school closure to be pushed out another two to five weeks after April 7. So I’m thinking around the first of May,” said Zimmerman.
He said the prom venue had already canceled. The thought of a summertime prom was broached, but it would likely be a parent-led event and not a school-sponsored one if it occurs outside of the school year.
As for commencement, if it is canceled, one option mentioned would be to bring students in 10 at a time for photos in their caps and gowns, and possibly live streaming it.
The board also approved an amendment with the district transportation company that will pay bus drivers 82 percent of their normal pay while school is canceled. The motion also directs Zimmerman to make further amendments if needed, in case the school outage is extended.
The board held a first reading of extracurricular code changes, which are aimed at improving the disciplinary procedure. It will likely be voted on next month. If approved it will go into effect this fall.
Zimmerman also reported the district is looking to continue employing a mental health counselor, a position shared with the DeLand-Weldon and Bement school districts. The position was to be free to schools for two years, but two partners — Kirby Medical Center and the DeWitt-Piatt Bi-County Health District — withdrew from the program after schools balked at adding a nurse component.
He felt there were positive aspects to the nursing aspect, but that there was concern over “clarity for the program goals and rollout. It felt forced upon us.”
The Piatt County Mental Health Center remains as a partner, and a new contract is being negotiated to keep the mental health counselor on the payroll after May, even if schools will now be on the hook for a portion of the cost.
In other action, the board:
—approved $131,900 in technology equipment, including Chromebook purchases, replacing a desktop lab with a mobile one at the high school, 35 flat panel screens for high school classrooms, and the replacement of some teacher laptops;
—approved the resignations of: Paige Albrecht as high school cheerleading and pep club sponsor; Andrea Bailey, middle school talent show sponsor; Sydney Bertelsmann, second grade teacher; Anthony Wirth, high school assistant football coach and middle school assistant track coach;
—approved the hiring of: Lisa Bright, Washington Elementary head cook; Andrew Dunlap, district social worker; Mark Hughes, middle school principal (see associated story); Mike Stokowski, high school assistant softball coach; and Tara Stetson, high school math teacher;
—approved first year teachers rehired for the second year: Nicole Chambers, Katie Fulton, Shayla Fountain, Christina Guarnieri, Elizabeth Maske, Amber Goebel, Jennifer Traynor, Hannah Murray, Megan Parsons, Brittney Ryan and Stephen Kirk;
—approved second year teachers to be rehired for the third year: Colene Anderson, Christyn Biswell, Alicia Burge, Brad Curry, Lauren Klein, Allison Lanphear, Marissa Brewer, Bridget Yaeger and Nicholas Walsh;
—approved third year tenure for Kristen Cothren
—approved fourth year tenure for Ashley Barnes, Kimberly Brandenburg, Christy Crouch, Chesea Ehrhardt, Kara Hettinger, Korryn Plotner, Allison Saldaris and Andrew Webb;
—approved volunteer coaches Chuck Clutts, high school softball, and Jeffrey Wileaver, high school baseball;
—approved retirements of Jane Swanson at the end of 200-21 and Cristin Bowlin at the end of 2023-24;
—approved a transfer of Megan Parsons from second grade to fifth grade teacher; and
—approved a revised leave of absence for Colene Anderson.