Illinois schools could be on again, off again for COVID-19 next school year, state chief says

Students in the hallways at North-Grand High School in Chicago. Photo by Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat; Taken May, 2019
Students in the hallways at North-Grand High School in Chicago (Stacey Rupolo for Chalkbeat)

Illinois schools might close intermittently to protect against the spread of COVID-19 next school year, state Superintendent Carmen Ayala said during a Facebook Live conversation with state Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch, a Democrat representing several suburbs adjacent to Chicago’s West Side. 

Ayala spoke Tuesday night, hours after Gov. J.B. Pritzker revealed a plan to gradually reopen the state’s economy. The plan did not include a specific timeline for when schools might reopen; the governor had said in recent weeks that remote learning could extend into fall. 

During the conversation, the state’s top educator laid out different possibilities for reopening schools, depending on the trajectory of COVID-19 cases in the coming months. Schools could start the year with remote learning, with children allowed to come to school on certain days if health officials observe declines in coronavirus cases. Schools might flip days that different grades come into the building, for example.

She said her office also has been fielding more requests for planning days for remote learning, as district leaders weigh the impact of closures extending into summer and fall.  

“We just don’t know, but we have to be ready. It has to be different and unique for each school based upon the community context, the resources, the number of children and whether or not you have the space,” Ayala said.

The scenario introduced by Pritzker Tuesday showed the state reopening region by region, depending on the rate of new infections in the coming weeks. Some regions might be able to offer limited child care and summer programs starting later this month.

If regions throughout the state can reduce the number of new COVID-19 infections, then schools, summer programs, and child care can reopen following safety guidelines, the governor said. But at this point, Pritzker said, “It’s hard for me to point to a region and say, ‘This region might come first.’”

Under Pritzker’s plan, reopening schools would happen in the later phases, raising questions about how districts would extend learning into summer. School district leaders have said that summer learning opportunities are critical to help stave off learning losses from months of shuttered in-person schooling. Illinois schools closed on March 17 under a stay-at-home order. 

Chicago Public Schools, which has made summer school a critical ingredient in its proposed grading and promotions policy, is drafting multiple summer school plans. They include one for virtual summer schooling and one with some limited in-person learning in small groups, should school buildings be able to reopen under some social distancing guidelines. 

In her appearance Tuesday night, Ayala addressed how federal funding might help bridge the digital divide between have and have-not students if remote learning continues for additional months. School districts across the state are expecting to receive $569 million from the federal coronavirus stimulus, she said, and the governor will receive another $108 million in federal dollars to be spent on schools. 

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The superintendent said the state could use some of that to help districts purchase digital equipment and internet hot spots, and to train both educators and parents to adapt to remote learning online. A survey of five of Illinois’ largest districts, conducted by Chalkbeat and the Better Government Association, show that leaders have already spent tens of millions on technology purchases, but some students still don’t have devices, and participation data has lagged. 

“I think that’s the best return on investment and moving toward the future, but also acknowledging that there may be intermittent closings next year until we have a vaccine and this coronavirus is fully under control,” Ayala said.

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