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What stories we’ll be watching on the state education beat in 2021

A sign in a school hallway reminding students to keep 6 feet distance apart.
After an unprecedented year of disruption from the coronavirus pandemic, Illinois will continue to focus on helping school districts recover.
Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat

After an unprecedented year of disruption from the coronavirus pandemic, Illinois will continue to focus on helping schools recover next year.

Among the challenges of the new year, Illinois will have to figure out how to increase education budgets in order to adequately fund schools, get more teachers of color into the classroom, and provide services for students with special needs.

Here are five things that Chalkbeat Chicago will be paying close attention to in 2021:

How much money will schools receive?

After months of wrangling, Congress passed a $900 billion stimulus package this week that will give $82 billion to education, including about $52 million for K-12 public schools. We do not know yet how much Illinois will receive and what amount will be distributed to local school districts.

The state’s board of education is weighing whether to recommend a $412 million increase to its $8.8 billion education budget for schools in 2021-22. It will set its budget in the spring.

This year’s education budget remained flat from the previous year. So far, schools have escaped midyear cuts that Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced this fall — but educators fear what declining revenues will mean for next school year’s budget.

It’s not certain how much federal stimulus funds will actually help schools. They may end up backfilling losses from state support.

In March, the first round of federal funding to school districts was barely enough to keep districts afloat. Chalkbeat reported in July that some school districts have not been able to tap into the emergency fund, and some states were using the funds to make up for lost revenue; in some states districts were not eligible for the funds.

Illinois received $569 million in the first round of funding, with $512 million going directly to schools. Local school districts spent large sums on technology like Chromebooks and iPads, internet connections, and personal protective equipment, to cope with remote learning and COVID safety. Chicago received $200 million in emergency funding.

How much learning will students lose because of disruptions in education?

Last spring, the federal Department of Education granted states waivers from its annual testing requirement. So far this school year, the department hasn’t offered a similar dispensation.

By federal law, each spring Illinois has to administer a reading and math test for grades 3 through 8, the SAT college entrance exam for some high schoolers, and particular tests for English learners and students with disabilities.

In December, the state board of education decided that school districts statewide will not have to administer any assessments earlier than March 15. Initially, it had decided to wait until after the election in case a new presidential administration might offer waivers.

But education advocates raised alarms during board of education meetings about learning loss and urged the state to administer tests to understand what academic support students will need, but to not use test results to punish school districts.

During a November board meeting, Theodia Gillespie, president of the Quad County Urban League, asked the board to move forward with assessments in the spring.

“The assessment this year will allow us to track student progress during this less-than-normal year. It will allow us to create a plan as we move into 2021 and most importantly, allow us to put a remediation process in place to ensure there are no long-term irreversible impacts from this period.” she said.

School district leaders disagreed, arguing they could not test students equitably because of the difficulty in communicating with families during remote learning.

Michelle Smith, superintendent of Berwyn North School District 98, told the state board that the data will only show what schools already know, that “schools with higher levels of low-income students will perform lower than schools with more affluent students.”

School districts are figuring out how to safely reopen school buildings.

In June, the state board of education allowed school districts to reopen school buildings, if they could do so safely. The board said that school districts will have to cooperate with local public health departments in arranging in-person instruction, a hybrid model, or staying remote.

School districts rushed to plan to reopen school buildings or to provide families with technology or hotspots to get internet connections for remote learning. Over the summer, school districts released plans and adjusted them based on the feedback from families, educators, and local boards of education.

At the same time, teachers protested in Rockford and Chicago, saying reopening campuses would be unsafe. Rockford’s school district created a hybrid plan while Chicago went completely remote.

The state board of education reports that out of the state’s 848 school districts, 246 offer in-person instruction, 246 are operating remotely, and 356 run on a blended-learning model.

With coronavirus cases spiking, some Illinois school districts have quickly shifted to online-only learning. Chicago plans to reopen Jan. 11 to bring early learners and students with special needs into school buildings. But with changes in virus numbers, the district has delayed reopening several times this year.

How will the state’s most vulnerable students fare?

In April, the federal department of education did not waive the requirement for states to provide special education services, including what’s known as individualized education programs. Chicago faces high stakes because it operates under a court monitor for not providing such services in the past.

In Chicago, some students began to receive services like speech and language, physical and occupational therapy in May, but some did not receive any services at all.

In the fall, Chicago parents struggled to adjust to remote learning.

“(This is) hard for single parents. I’m incredibly lucky I can hire someone to help. I’m not sure what other single parents are doing, or what I will do if my support person quits,” said Julie Parson Nesbitt, parent of a 15-year-old.

Young adults with disabilities who are aging out of transition services at age 22 in local school districts lost a few months of crucial training to prepare them for the transition out of high school into adulthood.

How will teachers adapt?

The abrupt transition to remote learning was hard on all teachers, but the experience has been extremely isolating for first-year teachers who have to navigate a new job, meeting new students, and working with new colleagues.

To support first-year teachers, the state has put $6.5 million from federal coronavirus funds toward mentoring teachers. The state also has a partnership with Lurie Children’s Hospital and Peoria Roe to provide mental health support to all teachers.

In addition to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, the country underwent a racial reckoning after police or vigilantes killed several Black Americans. Among the responses, calls for a more diverse teacher workforce grew more urgent. The state’s teacher workforce is overwhelmingly white, about 85%.

With tight budgets, the state’s ability to offer solutions next year may be limited. One effort proposes creating a report card that grades teacher preparation programs on metrics such as diversity of enrollees and how many aspiring teachers complete their studies.

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