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Illinois releases guidelines to reopen schools in the fall

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Illinois schools will need to check temperatures and screen for symptoms of illness, practice social distancing, and step up cleaning once school buildings reopen in the fall.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala released the long-awaited guidelines during a press conference Tuesday about how to safely reopen school buildings across the state after the coronavirus pandemic closed them in March.

“The benefits of in-person instruction can’t be overstated,” said Pritzker during the press conference.

Pritzker warned that school districts should be prepared to close and return to remote learning if there is a spike in cases during the school year. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency plans to provide cloth masks to students, teachers, and staff members in every public school district — more than 2.5 million masks — at no cost to the districts.

Ayala said, “The board of education strongly encourages schools and districts to maximize in-person instruction for all students. This may require some creative scheduling, but we know our incredible teachers and school leaders are up to the task and we’re here to help work them through any challenges that they may face.”

She added, “This fall will not be business as usual.”

Illinois is the latest state to release guidelines, following California, Indiana, and Michigan. Other states have told schools to take similar precautions, including social distancing and checking for coronavirus symptoms.

The state’s guidance stressed that school districts should “over-communicate” with parents about what a return to the school year will look like for their students. School districts should prioritize in-person instruction for English language learners, students in special education, and children younger than 13 years old.

If school districts have to close buildings due to a spike in coronavirus cases, the Illinois State Board of Education will allow districts to use in-person and remote learning days. Remote and blended learning days must ensure at least 5 hours of school work for students, according to the guidelines.

The state board of education also recommended that schools assess students because of the instructional time lost during the shift to remote learning. This will help schools understand what gaps exist in their students’ education.

Pritzker said earlier this month that he was determined to get schools open in the fall. He signed a bill last week that gives school districts the flexibility to have in-person instruction or remote learning. Ayala predicted in early May that schools could see a fall start that included remote learning or alternating shifts of students coming to school.

The state’s guidance expands upon what has been released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last month, the CDC recommended that schools practice hand washing and social distancing, step up cleaning efforts, serve meals in classrooms rather than the cafeteria, and stagger students’ arrival, among other things.

Across the state, superintendents have expressed concern about what it will take to reopen schools in the fall. Superintendent Phillip Caposey of Meridian Community Unit School District 223 in western Illinois created a list of 100 questions that he wants to be able to answer before reopening.

“I think that there’s going to be a diminished product in the fall. We’re trying to find the best bad solution. Every solution is bad: remote remote learning has its faults, hybrid has its faults, face to face is risky,” said Caposey.

On Tuesday, the Chicago Teachers Union also expressed concern that the state’s guidelines were “too general and too vague.” President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement that it was clear school will be “very different in the fall.”

During a state board meeting last week, advocates raised concerns about transitioning students back into school buildings. They asked questions about the state’s plan to provide professional development for new and long-time educators, how to assess students’ learning loss, and how to provide help for students dealing with trauma.

Robin Steans, Executive Director of Advanced Illinois, asked the board to examine how to address inequities in education as students are returning to the classroom.

“We need to be sure that we are doing recovery in a way that recognizes that there have been inequities coming into this crisis, inequities that have been exacerbated by this crisis,” she said. “We should be working incredibly hard at this stage is to make sure that we do not compound those inequities with how we approach recovery.”

Reporting contributed by Yana Kunichoff and Mila Koumpilova

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