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Remote learning options for Illinois students are slim as school districts enter new year

A health screening station with balloons that read welcome back.
Illinois students will have limited remote learning options this school year. The state board of education is pushing for all schools to reopen classrooms.
Stacey Rupolo for Chalkbeat

As Illinois school districts prepare to reopen for classes, many are grappling with how to offer remote learning for students with medical conditions and other learning needs while following a state board of education resolution mandating in-person learning this fall.

Some of the state’s largest school districts such as Chicago Public Schools and Elgin’s U-46 are creating virtual academies for medically fragile students. Springfield School District 186 is allowing students with medical conditions to apply for remote learning, while Rockford School District 205 is only offering in-person learning.

Last school year, Illinois districts shifted from in-person learning to remote learning as COVID-19 cases spiked. Many landed on a hybrid learning model that gave families the option to send students into classrooms for a few days a week or to remain at home. In some cases, districts remained closed for the entire year.

This year, however, both the state and federal governments are pressuring school districts to fully reopen in the fall. In Illinois, the state board has made it clear that schools must be in-person with limited opportunities for remote learning.

The state board of education is leaning heavily on masks to make reopening schools work and keep quarantining unvaccinated students to a minimum. State schools chief Carmen Ayala recently wrote a letter to superintendents statewide warning that any school district failing to implement the mask mandate will lose state recognition. That would result in losing state funding and access to sport associations.

“We know that consistent and correct mask use is the simplest, most effective way to keep students safely in school, where they can learn and grow to their fullest potential,” Ayala said in the letter.

Timothy Christian Schools, a private school in Elmhurst, lost state recognition earlier this month for not implementing a mask mandate. The state recently reversed its decision last week after the school said it will comply with the state’s mandate.

In addition to masks, the state’s school code allows local school boards to adopt a remote learning plan and, with the consent of a parent or guardian, provide it to students based on their learning needs. Schools around the state have taken different approaches to this option.

Elgin’s U-46, the second largest school district in the state, has a Distance Learning Academy for unvaccinated students with medical conditions that increase risk of serious complications related to COVID-19. Students must submit documentation from a medical professional and a parent or guardian must provide a statement on the medical condition.

The district says that slightly more than 100 students applied for the distance learning academy by the deadline in early June and about two dozen students will participate starting Aug. 16, the district’s first day of school. Students will be assigned a full-time distance learning teacher who will provide live instruction each day.

Springfield School District 186, with over 13,400 students making it one of the largest school districts in the state, plans to reopen school buildings to students on Sept. 2. As in Elgin, the district will require parents to apply for remote instruction through a “medical certification for home/ hospital instruction” form. To qualify, students must have a mental or physical medical condition that qualifies them to be temporarily educated away from a school building by a qualified teacher. The school district requires a physician to complete the form with a specific diagnosis.

The district is still registering students and doesn’t have a total of how many students will receive this exemption.

Rockford School District 205, the third largest school district in the state, has yet to finalize its back-to-school plans. At the moment, Rockford, which starts classes on Sept. 2, is only offering in-person learning.

Chicago Public Schools has doubled down on its commitment to limit virtual learning, but some parents there are pushing for a remote option. Preliminary reports showed uptake was low for the district’s Virtual Academy, which will only serve medically fragile students next year. Many parents whose students are eligible for the Virtual Academy aren’t enrolling their children because their questions about the academy have gone unanswered, while others whose students aren’t eligible for the Virtual Academy are interested in enrolling their children.

A petition posted last week by parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand in favor of expanded virtual learning has garnered over 1,000 signatures so far.

“There’s a growing sentiment from families all over the state that a remote option is necessary, at least for the first quarter, until the littlest can get vaccinated and families can feel safer,” Raise Your Hand parent leader Cassandra Kaczocha said in a Wednesday meeting with parents and reporters.

The district has not yet released clear guidance on whether it will close classrooms exposed to COVID-19 or require teachers to do double-duty teaching both students in a classroom and students via screens, a practice the city’s teachers union firmly criticizes.

This story has been updated to reflect that Cassandra Kaczocha is a Raise Your Hand parent leader, not an organizer.

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