Schools across Illinois will remain closed through school year, governor announces

School buildings across Illinois will remain shuttered for the rest of the school year in a bid to rein in coronavirus infections, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Friday. 

The governor said the state will amend graduation requirements for seniors who were trying to finish their final semester. Students may earn a diploma without a required consumer education course or physical education assessment.

With the decision that affects more than 2 million students statewide, Illinois joins more than two dozen states that have said schools will not reopen this year. Pritzker’s decision will include Chicago, the nation’s third largest school district, which started remote learning in earnest this week. 

District leaders said Friday evening that teachers will continue to steer remote learning for students through June 18, which was supposed to be the last day of school. Meal distribution at more than 200 school sites will also continue.

The country’s largest two public school districts, New York City and Los Angeles Unified, have already said they will not plan to reopen until next fall. 

Here in Illinois, both Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lightfoot have advocated for a cautious approach to relaxing restrictions meant to slow the spread of the virus, so the decision to extend school closures is hardly surprising. Still, the move to extend schools’ foray into remote learning — a challenging adjustment, especially for districts where many students lack access to computers and the internet — was not an easy call, the governor said. 

“My decisions are hard ones, but they follow the science,” Pritzker said.

“We know that there are many school districts with unique challenges,” he added, “and we will work with them as they arise.”

The state has already won a federal waiver to forgo standardized testing this spring, and Chicago will suspend its school rating system for the year. Illinois’ deputy governor for education said earlier in the week that the free administration of the SAT college entrance exam would move from spring to fall. 

In a nod to efforts to address Illinois’ longtime teacher shortage, Pritzker also announced Friday he would sign an executive order modifying teacher licensure requirements, including waivers that would allow students in teacher prep programs to graduate without completing the edTPA — a portfolio assessment — and student teaching assignments. 

The decision to not physically reopen schools until fall raises many questions, from how to stage high school graduations to whether to promote students who were failing when in-person learning was abruptly suspended. Districts must also decide if they want to fortify summer learning programs — which could be funded from the more than a half-billion dollars of federal stimulus funds that Illinois schools will receive — if summer programs get the greenlight at all. 

Pritzker said Friday that he had not made a decision about summer programs yet.

Other urban districts grappled with how long to keep brick-and-mortar classrooms closed. In New York City, the announcement by Mayor Bill de Blasio last week that schools will remain closed through the summer drew criticism from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who argued it was premature and called for additional consultation. 

Illinois announced the launch of more formal remote learning in April, but Chicago Public Schools took a more tentative approach than did other large districts. Schools began rolling out new plans this week, four weeks after students were sent home. By Friday, which was a “school improvement day” and on which many schools chose not to give assignments, the district had loaned out thousands of devices, and early reports showed momentum at some schools, but participation remained a hurdle. 

The closures have spotlighted the inequity in districts across Illinois. Two-thirds of district leaders in early polls said that they could not shift fully to e-learning because of technological hurdles and lack of training for teachers on how to shift lessons online. Kids First, a Chicago school choice group that works with parents, said Friday that it was still seeing “startling gaps” in connectivity in some neighborhoods in the city, such as Austin,  Englewood, and Humboldt Park. 

“The governor’s critical decision to close Illinois schools for the remainder of the school year presents us with an enormous challenge to overcome — ensuring educational equity in the midst of an uncertain, prolonged interruption to in-school learning,” said Kids First CEO Daniel Anello. “While CPS has released a thoughtful plan for remote learning, which began this week, we cannot expect all students to learn when too many don’t have access to in-home internet.”

Since the closures have been extended, Chicago and some other large districts in the state, such as Rockford and Peoria, have scrambled to purchase laptops, hotspots, and other devices. Meanwhile, more affluent districts have been able to debut e-learning plans since the statewide closures first took effect March 17. 

Pritzker said Friday that the inequities in tech devices and Internet access among districts weighed heavily on him as he made the decision to extend closures. But citing an example of administrators in Dallas City who are hand delivering paper packets and meals and a school district that is working closely with a local radio station to broadcast storytimes and other lessons, he said he was “confident” that districts would find ways to manage and expand learning opportunities for students.

The state’s top educator, Carmen Ayala, said the state school board would work on a transition plan for school districts, and that they expected districts to use federal stimulus funds to help fill gaps.