Illinois gives school districts leeway for remote instruction amid COVID outbreaks

A young girl with long dark hair leans toward a silver laptop computer.

Illinois districts will be required to offer remote learning to all students who are quarantined after being potentially exposed to COVID-19 in school, under a resolution passed Tuesday by the state board of education.

In an earlier resolution issued by the board, remote instruction was limited to students who are unvaccinated or ineligible for a COVID vaccine if they were under quarantine orders from a local public health department or the state department of health.

The new public health guidelines also give school districts the ability to close school buildings under an “adaptive pause” if there is an outbreak at schools. The updated resolution comes amid the emergence of the highly contagious delta variant and a spike in COVID case numbers and hospitalizations throughout the state.

The number of schools on the state’s campus outbreak list grew to 81 as of Sept. 3; another 1,007 schools reported potential exposures. More districts  have also been forced to contend with sizable numbers of students in quarantine. 

In Springfield school district 186, which serves more than 13,000 students, more than 1,400 students were in quarantine as of Wednesday, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard. The district is considering asking the state board of education and the state’s health department to mandate student vaccinations.

At the special state board meeting Tuesday, Illinois schools chief Carmen Ayala tried to walk the line between giving districts more flexibility if case counts rise and ensuring students return to classrooms after 18 months of hybrid or virtual learning. 

“The door to remote learning needs to be narrow,” she said. “Our goal is to further ensure continuity of learning for all students who are excluded from school, as well as support their safe and speedy return to in-person learning.”

Many Illinois school districts, including Chicago Public Schools, had interpreted the original resolution to mean that students with medical conditions could be excluded from in-person learning and offered medical exemptions to a small number of students. 

On Tuesday, some parent organizers in Chicago and the city’s teachers union began circulating the state board’s change on social media and arguing that Chicago Public Schools should broaden access to its “Virtual Academy,” which has been strictly limited for children with medical conditions and has so far enrolled fewer than 1,000 students. 

Mark Klaisner, president of Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, said school districts are trying to figure out how to keep quarantined students connected to classrooms. Unlike last year when school districts were able to keep school buildings closed or bring in a certain number of students in a hybrid learning model, students who are under quarantine this year may be out of the classroom for up to 14 days. 

“Districts are trying to mobilize on a system where they can stream what’s happening in the classroom so they can live and remote simultaneously,” said Klaisner. “I think a few people are calling that ‘room and zoom’ where some kids are home and some are in classrooms.”

Klaisner’s concern is ensuring that districts have access to resources to keep students connected because the pandemic has highlighted inequities throughout the state.

“One district, in particular I remember, didn’t have Xerox machines to send students packets,” said Klasiner. “But I can look out my window and point to a school district where every kid has their own individual learning device.”

As of July 30, 2021, 53.2% of children age 12 to 17 in Illinois were fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of last Friday, 18 Illinois school districts were on probation for failing to comply with the state’s school mask mandate.

Cassie Walker Burke contributed to this report.

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