The Hoopeston Education Association recently provided its members with gift cards for businesses around the Hoopeston area.

HEA President Dylan Swank said the HEA puts together an operational budget each year and as the HEA’s executive committee was discussing this year’s budget they realized there was some surplus money available.

Swank said the HEA has been in a good financial position for the last few years.

This combined with the truncated school year last spring and the restrictions related to COVID-19 led to a surplus Swank said.

He said the pandemic has meant that many of the trips and activities the HEA sponsors for its members were cancelled.

“We didn’t have some of our big-ticket expenses like we normally do,” Swank said.

He said the HEA generally sends members to various assemblies throughout the year and the local dues go towards paying for these trips.

The pandemic put an end to those trips for this school year.

“As an association, we collect dues so we can spend those dues,” he said. “We were trying to think of some creative ways that we could spend this money that we weren’t going to be spending this year.”

Swank said the HEA considered a kind of dues-rebate program for members, but they wanted to help support the Hoopeston community at-large as well.

“The majority of our members live in Hoopeston,” he said. “This is our community. Everyone is struggling this year, small businesses and restaurants just as much as any individual, so we wanted to support our individual members, we wanted to be able to support Hoopeston-owned and operated businesses as much as we could too.”

Swank said they gave away around $3,000 worth of gift cards purchased from local businesses to HEA members.

The HEA received a positive response from the local businesses that they purchased gift cards from this year.

“We had a positive response,” Swank said.

He said Rachel Gillins picked up the cards for the HEA and reported that many of the business owners were moved to tears by the gesture.

“She said there were a lot of tears of gratitude,” he said. “That is really humbling, but also really exciting for us. Just because we know that we’re accomplishing the goals we set out which was to help support these businesses, to help them keep their lights on and doors open.”

Asked if the HEA would present similar initiatives in the future, Swank said that once in-person training events resume HEA member dues will be used to pay for them.

However, he said the HEA still has a surplus of funds from years of responsible financial planning, so the group may find ways to spend some of that money creatively in the community over the next year.

He said the HEA executive committee hasn’t made any decisions on what that spending may look like yet.

Swank was also asked to talk about the challenges teachers faced during this unprecedented year.

“This was my fifth year teaching, my fifth year in the district, and I am more exhausted mentally and physically than I have ever been before,” he said. “That’s the consensus I hear from a lot of teachers and support staff here in the building. We’re tired. Everybody’s tired. This year’s been exhausting for everybody.”

Swank said staff members spent August and September trying to adjust to this new normal and he does feel that the school year has gone about as smoothly as it could under the circumstances.

He said they’ve been able to keep the school buildings open for the most part and limit the spread of COVID within the district.

“And those are all positives,” he said. “It doesn’t make the day-to-day any easier.”

Swank spoke of some of the day-to-day challenges related to the pandemic pointing out how wearing masks tends to limit communication between teacher and student because neither party can see the other’s lips move and how limitations related to group work affect learning opportunities in the classroom.

Even so, Swank is proud of the work staff members have done under these conditions.

“Those things are challenging but it’s proven to be an opportunity for our staff to show their creativity,” he said.

Swank said teachers and staff were looking forward to the Christmas break to have some time off and prepare for the next semester.

Some district teachers will be using a new technique to teach from a distance in the second semester.

As discussed during a recent Hoopeston Area Board of Education meeting, Hoopeston Area is pushing forward with incorporating synchronous learning for some classrooms.

Swank said this technique involves livestreaming the lessons from the classroom to students who are learning from home.

He said the synchronous learning process involves the teacher hosting a Google Meet, posting the link for remote learners and this would allow the remote learners to join the classroom in real-time virtually.

“Ideally, allowing staff to do synchronous learning will allow the staff to accomplish two goals,” he said. “First of all, the intent is for it to be an enriching experience for our remote learners.”

Swank said, without synchronous learning, remote learners are missing out on vital experiences in the classroom such as hearing discussion and feeling as if they were a part of the classroom.

He said remote learners haven’t had much of a chance to interact with their peers in an academic way this year.

“It’s just a chance to bring a sense of classroom community to those remote-learning students that we have,” he said.

The second goal, Swank said, is to lessen some of the load for teachers in the district.

“If this works the way we hope it works it can also lessen some of the load on teachers,” he said.

Rather than needing teachers to record the lessen they taught during the day after school and post it for remote learners, Swank said teachers will be able to livestream that lesson and then post a recording of that lesson for students who weren’t able to watch it live.

“Hopefully this can save our staff some time,” he said.

Swank said that recording lessons are just one element of the work that staff members are doing for remote learners.

“There’s a lot of one-on-one video conferences, a lot of reaching out, a lot of emailing,” he said.

Swank reiterated that the number goal is for synchronous learning to enrich the learning environment for students.

Asked about any challenges associated with synchronous learning, Swank said that technological issues will always present a challenge.

“If we’ve all learned one thing this year it’s that technology can sometimes be a lot difficult to manage than we would want it to be,” he said.

That said, Swank pointed out that the district has purchased some additional video recording and audio recording hardware that he hopes will make the process go as smoothly as it can.

Swank said district teachers will be trained on the synchronous learning process early on in the second semester.

Swank and Gillins have been doing some trial work with the synchronous learning process recently and will be charged with training their fellow staff members in the second semester.

“There are going to be challenges. There are probably going to be some hiccups along the way, but we’re trying to anticipate those and give our staff the tools to respond to those before they have the rubber hit the road in the second semester,” he said.

Swank was also asked about the COVID-19 vaccination efforts and where teachers fell on the state’s tier list for vaccinations.

Swank said first responders and essential workers will have first priority for the vaccine.

“As far as I understand it, teachers are still tier 1B,” he said. “Teachers in Illinois aren’t the first folks on the list but we’re right there.”

Swank said that everyone recognizes that having students back in school in-person for a normal five-day-a-week schedule is the best practice.

“That’s what everyone is hoping to get back to,” he said. “Everyone understands that is best practices. Right now, that’s not feasible.”

Swank hopes that providing the COVID-19 vaccine to educational personnel can be one of the first steps towards getting schools back to a normal schedule.

“Hopefully, rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine to educational personnel, sooner rather than later, is going to help us accomplish that goal of getting back into school and back to a normal school year if not by the end of this year then certainly by next year,” he said.

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