With less than two months to go before some Illinois elementary and high school students are scheduled to head back to class, the State Board of Education has yet to establish guidelines on just how those returns should look.
Carmen Ayala, state superintendent of education, said some of the holdup has been in ensuring that proposed guidelines meet with criteria being established by the Illinois Department of Public Health. Part of it, she added, is devising a plan that fits for all 852 school districts in the state.
“The pieces have to be in place,” Ayala said at the June 17 State Board of Education meeting. “Community A in southern Illinois is not the same as community B in suburban Illinois or urban Illinois.”
Ayala said she knows the clock is ticking, and that information needs to be disseminated to school administrators and teachers, and then shared with parents.
“I recognize the urgency of getting information out to the field as quickly as possible,” the state superintendent said. “I want it to be out yesterday, but there are background details and processes that have to be worked out.”
State Board of Education vice chairperson Donna Leak of Flossmoor, who is also a grade school district superintendent, said the sooner information on school reopening guidelines can be shared the better.
“I can’t stress the urgency enough,” said Leak. “We don’t want to come back to 852 different plans. There needs to be some continuity.”
Leak, the superintendent of Community Consolidated School District 168 in far south suburban Sauk Village, said that a uniform approach is needed so that parents with students in three different schools do not have to deal with three different student schedules.
Leak said an email from Ayala telling educators that the guidelines are coming and citing the reasons for the delay would go a long way toward “quieting some of the upheaval.”
Illinois schools have not had in-person learning since March 16 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
When schools do resume in-person learning, they will be much different than they were in March.
Ayala said that masks or shields will be required of all students and staff. She said six-foot separation is recommended for all students and staff.
Board member David Lett of Springfield, a retired school superintendent, said that more conversations need to be had on face masks and what districts’ responses will be to violators.
“Some students will flat out not wear one. Will that be a disciplinary issue?” Lett asked. “There will be students who will say that they are not going to wear one. Teachers are going to wear masks while they are trying to communicate with students? There has to be leeway on the guidelines.”
Lett said one of his colleagues went to a board of education meeting and everyone there tried to adhere to wearing a mask for the whole meeting and they could not do it.
“They couldn’t hear. It was hot and uncomfortable,” Lett said. “Districts can say masks are a requirement, but then are (students) going to be allowed to be there when there are refusals to wear them? There is no punishment in public for people who don’t wear masks. We need to think through that for districts. That is going to be a tough issue out of the gate to deal with.”
Ayala said when it is important to be able to see their face, teachers do have the option to wear face shields instead of a mask.
The state superintendent added that by fall the state should be at the stage of recovery to allow gatherings of up to 50 people, meaning students should be allowed to take school buses again.
“However, there has to be a lot of planning and care. We have to make sure students wear masks,” Ayala said. “There will have to be separation of students. They cannot all be packed in. We have to ensure ventilation.”
Brenda Dixon, research chief and evaluation officer for the Illinois State Board of Education, said ISBE officials continue to meet with state public health officials and representatives of the governor’s office to ensure in-person learning to the greatest extent possible.
“We are making our way through unchartered territory,” Dixon said. “… Our first priority is to the health and wellness of the almost 2 million students in the state.”
Dixon said the State Board is looking to ensure that parents and educators play a role in the reopening plan.
State Board member Cristina Pacione-Zayas of Chicago said parental input is key to a successful reopening plan.
“Not having parental input will only undermine implementation of any plan,” Pacione-Zayas said. “Any plan hinges upon parents and families being fully vested in the process as well as shaping the process.”
Robin Steans, president of Advance Illinois, an independent policy and advocacy organization, said recovery from the coronavirus shutdown for in-person learning will not come quickly.
“We are talking in terms of years. I don’t think you can mitigate it in a short spurt,” Steans said. “Every student in the state and country suffered a major disruption in their education. It was the most profound on low-income individuals and students of color.”
Steans said a massive infusion of cash from the state would help bridge the learning gap caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“A once-in-a-lifetime situation needs a once-in-a-lifetime response,” Steans said.
She said more instruction time for students is something needed throughout the state as recovery planning continues.
Steans said in many districts the instruction time for students went from six hours a day during in-person learning to two or three hours per day during the pandemic.
“We do not have information from every district, but 25-50 percent of students were not engaged … . We need weeks of additional time for three or four years,” Steans said. “Teachers also need additional planning time.”
Steans said individual school districts cannot afford to pay the tens of millions of dollars needed to add just one day of instruction to the school calendar.
“The only way to make sure this happens is for the state to step in,” she said. “… We need to make sure our students are not permanently haunted and scarred from this. Add summer time. Add minutes to the day. The state has to say, ‘There are some minimums.’”