Amid school upheaval, Illinois’ top educator sees ‘goodness and ingenuity’ throughout state

With Illinois schools closed at least through this month amid the coronavirus pandemic, the state’s board of education has sought to steer 852 districts on how to provide education as life takes drastic turns. 

State schools Superintendent Carmen Ayala is leading the charge. Gov. J.B. Pritzker recommended her for the job last year, after she led the Berwyn North School District 98 — a predominantly Latino elementary school district outside Chicago — from being one of the lowest-performing districts in math and reading to outperforming most of its neighboring schools. She is Illinois’ first Latina state superintendent.

Ayala’s biggest concern is to ensure students will continue “learning without adding stress or harm to lives.” And amid great change and uncertainty, Ayala finds hope in seeing “the goodness and ingenuity shine brightly from every corner of Illinois during this scary time.”

Below is an interview conducted by email that has been condensed and edited. 

Experts warn there could be significant lags in student learning. What will you do to address those gaps? 

When ISBE filed emergency rules to define remote learning days we ensured schools had maximum flexibility, but we were intentional about requiring that each district include a transition plan for when students return to the school building. Schools are thinking now about what needs students will have when they return to the school building and how to support them in both academic and social-emotional growth.   

We are also very happy that schools will soon have additional resources. The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act is providing stimulus funding for education, and Illinois is anticipating receiving approximately $569 million for public schools. School districts could choose to use that funding both to build up their infrastructure for remote learning — such as purchasing laptops and tablets for students — and to plan for transitional supports like summer learning and supplemental after-school programs. 

What did you learn from surveying districts about their remote learning plans/e-learning capabilities?   

Our Remote Learning Survey showed that most districts, more than 80%, are using a mix of digital and non-digital methods to deliver instruction. 

Illinois State Superintendent Carmen Ayala (Courtesy photo)

The governor has made historic investments in schools … [including] the per student cost of technology. The governor also launched a statewide broadband initiative last year through the Rebuild Illinois capital program to expand internet access across the entire state. 

While we are headed in the right direction, the digital divide still exists.

The board of education said that it will help schools obtain devices and get access to Wi-Fi. Is the state planning on purchasing devices?  

Federal CARES Act funding will be distributed equitably. School districts that serve greater numbers of students from homes with limited resources will receive a greater share of the federal stimulus funding. 

School districts have the flexibility to use this funding to meet what they believe are their students’ greatest needs, including purchasing devices and Wi-Fi hotspots. The board of education will also receive CARES Act funding as the state education agency. We intend to make funding available to school districts in the greatest need for them to expand students’ access to technology and the internet.  

Do you think this pandemic will have a long-term effect on education policy?   

It is too soon to know the long-term impacts that this pandemic will have on education in Illinois.

What worries you the most right now? 

I think about our students at home and all the different stressors they may be dealing with; having to work to help provide for the family if their parents have been laid off, being concerned about losing their health insurance and what they would do if they got sick, taking care of elderly grandparents who are more at risk during this crisis, and general anxiety about the world. 

We are encouraging teachers to reach out to students regularly. Ensuring that every child knows that they have someone they can talk to, someone who cares and who can help them if they feel overwhelmed or need a friend — that’s a teacher’s most important role. Maintaining that connection is one of my highest priorities.  

What gives you hope in this moment?  

I have seen goodness and ingenuity shine brightly from every corner of Illinois during this scary time. I have seen school nurses and career and technical education programs answer the call to donate —  and in some cases even 3D print — personal protective equipment for our health care heroes and first responders. I have seen teachers read bedtime stories to students via video chat. I have seen our principals and superintendents lead their communities with agility and generosity.

I can go on and on about the incredible work being done to get students and families through this tough time. It’s those stories that make me feel hopeful about the days, weeks, and months ahead.