Almost two-thirds of Illinois education leaders say their schools are not prepared to do remote learning

A survey conducted by the Illinois State Board of Education found that almost two-thirds of educators in the state said their school districts were not prepared to conduct remote learning.

That involves teaching and learning via technology devices and the internet, which the state has encouraged schools to use during the upcoming two-week closure to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Over the weekend, the board surveyed 600 teachers, administrators and other school leaders about their readiness to conduct lessons outside of the classroom.

State board spokesperson Jackie Matthews said that school leaders lacked devices, connectivity, and software. In response, the board and the governor’s office are seeking help from donors “to see if we can get every school district in the state equipped with the technology that they would need to be able to do e-learning in case the closure extends beyond March 30.”

When asked if the board would be able to help equip large school districts, like Rockford and Chicago, in a short timeframe, Matthews said only, “We’re exploring those opportunities.”

Chicago Public Schools has said it is not set up to do districtwide e-learning, but many schools are sending home enrichment sites for parents and families to use during the closures. Speaking to reporters Monday, Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson said many, but not all, district schools have devices that students can take home during the closure. She said the district has appealed to philanthropic organizations to help with an effort to provide computers to students who might not have access to them. 

After Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday announced a mandatory closure of all schools across the state, the state board requested that all schools continue education for students via either remote learning or a paper packet. 

The state will count each day from March 17 through March 30 as an “Act of God” day under the school code. That covers times when a school district has used up allotted emergency days but needs to close schools due to weather conditions or threats to students safety and health. A few school districts used that designation during the polar vortex in 2019. 

During the mandatory school closure, the state will not label the time as instructional days. The state board strongly recommends that educators not grade students’ work done during the two-week closure. 

About state standardized testing and whether it will continue as planned after students return in the spring, a primary concern of teachers and administrators, Matthews said that the U.S. Department of Education has indicated that it will make waivers available that could give states flexibility to not offer tests this year. But, she said, the board of education “will not know and be able to determine exactly what waivers it is going to be able to pursue until we understand the full scope of the closure.” 

Even for school districts that have used remote learning, leaders said that a long-term closure would present new challenges for them since their programs were designed for short-term weather related emergencies. 

“Our plan was not designed to be used long term. It was more designed for a day or two here or there. We would have to do a little bit of work thinking through sustainability,” said Nick Polyak, the superintendent of the Leyden High School District near O’Hare International Airport.

Shayla Ewing, an English and drama teacher at Pekins Community High School in Central Illinois, said that each one of her students have Chromebooks and most of her lessons are online. However, most of the work she has online was meant to supplement classroom instruction, not replace it. 

“My current struggle right now is finding ways to make sure that whatever I produce I can allow students to have the same experience whether they have access to that online learning environment or access to some sort of printed copy,” said Ewing.