The Illinois State Board of Education on Wednesday adopted a resolution requiring daily in-person learning next school year with limited exceptions for remote learning.
© Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune
Pre-kindergarten instructor Angela Panush helps a student with his lunch as others in the classroom eat at their desks on the first day of in-person learning at Dawes Elementary School in Chicago in January. Kindergarten through 12th grade schools would be required to have full-time in-person classes in the fall under a proposed new state rule.
Several parents speaking at the ISBE meeting had implored the board to reject the proposal, in part to account for children who may still be too young to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
Though some board members expressed reservations about the resolution’s language during an hourlong discussion, they voted unanimously in favor. Their concerns, however, raise questions about options left for families in the absence of pandemic-related allowances, such as when Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s disaster proclamation lifts.
A draft of the resolution states that “all schools must resume fully in-person learning for all student attendance days, provided that … remote instruction be made available for students who are not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine and are under a quarantine order by a local public health department or the Illinois Department of Public Health.”
Much discussion Wednesday centered around the “and” stipulating that schools only had to provide a remote option for vaccine-ineligible students who are under a quarantine order.
“That one sentence right there has so much to it,” said ISBE Vice Chair Donna Leak, of Flossmoor. Leak said ISBE needed to be conscientious about its guidance to help schools understand when they can support students with virtual learning.
ISBE spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said the resolution was “based on feedback from the field” and supports a declaration by state Superintendent Carmen Ayala which is enforceable. She also pointed to a state law that gives the superintendent the authority to “declare a requirement to use remote learning days or blended remote learning days for a school district, multiple school districts, a region, or the entire state” during a gubernatorial disaster proclamation.
In a message Tuesday, Ayala said the resolution “begins to transition us toward a future in which we are no longer under a gubernatorial disaster proclamation and the pandemic-related remote learning statutes no longer apply.”
“With the board’s support, I anticipate making the declaration at the conclusion of the current academic year,” Ayala wrote.
Ayala on Wednesday encouraged school districts to use the resolution to plan for next school year and said ISBE will provide more information and an FAQ.
School districts that want to continue remote offerings on an individual basis “if that will best meet the student’s learning needs” may do so under other sections of the law, Ayala said, citing parts of the state school code that allow districts to offer remote or blended learning to qualifying students. Some students with medical conditions who are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine or who aren’t under quarantine order may meet criteria for home or hospital instruction.
According to the school code, “a child qualifies for home or hospital instruction if it is anticipated that, due to a medical condition, the child will be unable to attend school, and instead must be instructed at home or in the hospital, for a period of two or more consecutive weeks or on an ongoing intermittent basis.”
Though a growing list of higher education institutions have announced COVID-19 vaccine requirements for students or employees, ISBE “is not currently issuing guidance mandating vaccines,” Matthews said.
The state, like many local school systems, has instead focused on vaccine education and access, encouraging school districts to host vaccination events. So far, COVID-19 vaccines have only been approved for ages 12 and older, though ongoing trials are testing the vaccines in younger children.
Katharine Eastvold, a mother of four from Springfield, said her family decided to keep the children in remote learning through the remainder of this school year to protect them and others, and that many people in their community made similar decisions at professional or financial cost.
Her oldest child is fully vaccinated, and the middle two children got their first shots last week, she said. But her youngest is 10, and she worried vaccines would not be approved for that age group in time to be fully protected by the first day of next school year.
“Many children have fallen off the radar,” she said, acknowledging the ways remote learning has not served all families. She said she’s not asking for remote learning to continue indefinitely, but to allow districts to offer it “for a finite period of time” for students unable to be vaccinated, until a reasonable amount of time had passed to allow them to reach full immunity.
David Wendeln, the father of a fully remote kindergartner, said he agreed with many premises of the resolution supporting the benefits of in-person learning, but that he did not agree with its mandate. He said he would not feel comfortable sending his son to first grade in person without the vaccine.
He stressed that the pandemic isn’t over yet, even as more people get vaccines and hospitalizations and new cases improve statewide. Illinois officials reported 1,633 new confirmed and probable cases and 28 deaths tied to COVID-19 Wednesday.
Wendeln listed immunizations the Illinois Department of Public Health requires of public school children, including diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, rubella mumps and several other diseases.
“COVID-19 is more prevalent, more infectious and has more severe possible outcomes than … many on that list,” he said. “How can the board allow, let alone require, students to return if the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t available to them?”
Calling the proposed requirement “reckless and inexcusable,” he asked the board to “please explain to me how on earth you can justify this resolution.”
After hearing from the public, some board members worried about students who live with elderly relatives or have medical conditions not clearly covered by Illinois law. Others said schools in their area won’t be able to fit all of their students if they’re still supposed to maintain 3-foot social distancing.
“I read this and see words like ‘must fully resume’ and that seems to be … a very difficult, in some cases, mandate,” said board member Roger Eddy, of downstate Robinson. He asked what the bottom line was for parents who did not feel comfortable with in-person learning.
ISBE lawyer Trisha Olson said each case would require a factual analysis, adding that parents in Illinois can also enroll children “as they see fit,” including home-schooling and nonpublic schools.
Eddy said distance learning provisions in the school code don’t cover all the potential scenarios that schools are likely to face.
“I am still concerned about comments parents made earlier about wanting to keep their homes safe,” Eddy said. “I don’t want them to have to go to a doctor, I don’t want to see them incur medical expenses to keep their families safe.”
Leak added that parents shouldn’t have to resort to home-schooling or spending money on services that public schools should provide for free.
Leak, superintendent of Community Consolidated Schools District 168 in Sauk Village, said she’s been getting questions about who would determine whether a student’s quarantine qualified and what the requirement would mean for students old enough to get the vaccine.
“If I am a high school superintendent and we end up with some kind of outbreak, all my high schoolers are eligible for the vaccine, so this resolution … the way it’s worded, would mean that my high schoolers would not be eligible for remote instruction because they were eligible for the vaccine, so even if it was a close contact … because they’re eligible for the vaccine, they would not be eligible for remote learning?” Leak asked.
Ayala referred to her previous statements about remote options for students with medical conditions, but Leak asked about other students, giving the example of a healthy 16-year-old who was determined to be a close contact of someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
“I’m eligible to be vaccinated, I don’t meet any of the other qualifications, then I don’t have a choice, I have to stay in person even though previously I may have been quarantined because I was a close contact?” Leak asked.
ISBE Chair Darren Reisberg, of Chicago, said while the resolution doesn’t require a school district to make remote learning available for students in those cases, it may still be possible under the school code.
Board member David Lett, of Springfield, wondered what would happen if a district didn’t choose to accommodate a parent’s request for a remote option for a particular student. He also asked how the resolution would affect districts that had been planning to include a remote component next school year.
Ayala reiterated that her declaration is a “signal” to get districts thinking about in-person learning when the disaster proclamation ends.
Chicago Public Schools, the biggest school district in Illinois and third in the U.S., has been planning for a mostly in-person fall and has said it will provide a virtual option for students with extenuating circumstances.
“We are pleased that ISBE is guiding districts to provide five days a week of in-person instruction,” CPS spokesman James Gherardi said in a statement this week. “This is what the district has been working toward and there seems to be a consensus at all levels of government that opening schools full-time in the fall is a critical priority and our position has always been that we would be offering a remote learning option for all students who are unable to return when class resumes in the fall.”
Since CPS began reopening schools, it’s made in-person learning optional and used a hybrid model, with each student in person two to four days a week. Only about 22% of district students attended in-person classes during a week in April for which CPS provided data. Of Illinois’ 849 school districts, 423 are providing blended or hybrid learning, 398 are fully in person and only 28 are fully remote, according to state data updated May 3.
In response to the ISBE vote, the Chicago Teachers Union emphasized the importance of listening to families.
“Two-thirds of our students remained remote this year, and it’s critical that we engage families directly this summer to hear what they need and take steps to meet those needs this fall,” said CTU spokesperson Chris Geovanis. “We look forward to working with CPS to ensure that by August, every school has effective ventilation, mask policies and other layered mitigation tools parents and families need to feel safe returning their children to buildings for in-person learning.”
The ISBE resolution notes the state is expected to move to phase five of the Restore Illinois plan on June 11, at which point businesses and public gatherings would be allowed to operate normally. ISBE expects the Illinois Department of Public Health to provide new guidance for schools in phase five.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also said it will issue updated guidance for schools “in the coming weeks” to help with planning for the fall.
In the meantime, the CDC has said that schools should still require face coverings for the rest of this school year even as fully vaccinated people are allowed to ummask in more public settings.
May 26, 2021 at 05:06PM