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Could the coronavirus pandemic mean a longer school year in the future?

Black and blue lockers in a school hallway.
The state legislature could amend the school code to increase the calendar year from 185 school days; however, it would take more money for school buildings to stay open longer.
Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat

A longer school year could be a possibility for Illinois students as state education leaders and legislators weigh options to address learning loss due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Legislators on the state’s education committee listened Wednesday afternoon as officials from the Illinois board of education, school leaders, and education advocates testified about the impact of the pandemic on learning and funding.

State Superintendent Carmen Ayala told the committee that the board is considering how to assess the extent of the losses so that there’s data showing the impacts of the shift to remote learning. But the data may not be available until the end of the school year. In the meantime, the board is looking into the learning priorities for each grade level that were created with input from educators across the state. Those will serve as the basis of where students should be.

“We don’t want to create a remediation situation. We want to create a situation where students are placed accordingly in the appropriate grade level, and we’re moving them along while filling in the gaps. If we don’t utilize that kind of a structure kids — we know through history —become further behind and some of them never catch up,” said Ayala.

Still, education policymakers want the state to start prioritizing not just assessments but how to address gaps.

During a presentation to the committee, Robin Steans of Advanced Illinois, a nonprofit education policy advocacy organization, recommended that the state increase time in the classroom and provide more money to school districts to assess students academically.

“You can add time to the day, you can add time to the year, you can do a combination of both. You can move to a year-round calendar. You can target time on kids who have been particularly affected academically,” said Steans.

She added, “You should solicit recommendations the first thing for next year to see how the state can add time and provide flexibility where districts choose how they do it. Talk to stakeholders about how to deal with the financial and labor management implications. Let’s see what we can come up with and maybe we won’t come up with anything, but we ought to go down trying.”

The state legislature could amend the school code to increase the calendar year from 185 school days, however, it would take more money for school buildings to stay open longer. The state budget for education this year is flat. Without federal funding to ensure more money flows into the state, there could be severe cuts to education funding in the near future.

Steans suggested assessing students, “This end of year assessment may matter more this year than it ever has. We need comparable data in every school district for as many children as we can to understand what’s been the impact and how that has fallen out along lines of income lines of race, language, and special needs.”

However, the state board of education is delaying their decision on assessments until after the November election, to see if they can waive federally required assessments that hold districts accountable for students’ success.

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