Erika Schafer took a pause during a Zoom meeting to check in on her son who was screaming from the next room. Her plan was for her second grader to return to in-person class this fall, but as the first day approached in August, her COVID-19 concerns didn’t go away.
“The delta variant does spread in the schools,” Schafer said. “The kids are contracting it, and it’s just more virulent, so it’s more likely that a person would pass it to somebody else.”
Schafer’s son Avery was a student in the south suburban Flossmoor school district. He’s now doing remote learning through a virtual Montessori school, and she said he’s doing well, despite the occasional interruption. Schafer went this route because there was no remote option at her public school district — even though legally, her school district could offer it. She and other parents tried to convince their districts to do so, but were unsuccessful.
And they’re not the only ones. Only eight school districts in Illinois have submitted remote education program policies to ISBE for this year, including Chicago Public Schools for medically fragile students. These districts are breaking new ground, offering something few districts are making available.
“I didn’t want our families to not have an option,” said Theresa Rouse, superintendent in an elementary school district in Joliet that has a remote learning program.
This is the reality despite the existence of a provision in the Illinois school code, which predated the pandemic, that gives all school districts the option to set up remote learning programs based on student learning needs. However, school districts appear focused on following a mandate from the Illinois State Board of Education that all school districts are required to provide full in-person learning to all students this year with limited exceptions.
The state board, like most government bodies, said remote learning last year took a toll on students’ mental health and academics and insists that in-person learning is safe with the right mitigation measures in place. For this year, it said remote learning was only for students who are unvaccinated and under quarantine or for medically fragile students.
However, before the pandemic hit, Illinois law allowed districts to adopt a remote educational program if a district determined that best served a student’s individual learning needs, and if the student meets criteria defined by the district’s policy. It’s a statute that parents like Schafer have been pointing out to their local school districts and asking why it can’t be done. A petition started by the education advocacy group, Raise Your Hand, collected nearly 6,000 signatures urging ISBE and CPS to offer a remote learning option.
The calls have been growing as the delta variant has spread and students have begun having to quarantine now that the school year has begun. CPS said schools should offer teacher-led remote instruction for only 25% of the day when individual students have to quarantine.
ISBE says school districts can offer a remote plan, but they aren’t required to do so. Beyond the eight submitted plans, some districts may have remote programs they haven’t informed the state about. Meanwhile, CPS has said it would not make a remote program widely available beyond what it has for medically fragile students. Some 450 students are enrolled.
CPS’ remote program is similar to what some of the other seven districts are doing. However, some schools, like Grant Community High School in northwest suburban Fox Lake, bases remote learning on a student’s individual learning needs. About 35 students there are participating.
In south suburban Joliet, medically fragile students and students who live with medically compromised people were eligible for the district’s remote program. The space is limited, and just about 1% of the students, or just over 100 kids across kindergarten to eighth grade are participating.
“Why go backward and not have options for families that we know we can provide,” Rouse said. “So we looked at the school code and decided, ‘You know what? We can make this work.’ ”
Rouse said instead of pulling district teachers in two different directions, it’s piloting a remote program with Edgenuity, a company that helps schools with digital curricula. Rouse says the program does come at a cost, so the district is using federal COVID-19 relief dollars to fund the pilot.
“If things go well, then we’ll look at how we might be able to use some of those monies to train teachers,” she said. “Because to sustain this long term, it can’t be dependent upon that money. It’s got to be something we can sustain long term if it’s something we’re going to continue with.”
In Erika Schafer’s house, no one is medically vulnerable, but she still feels school isn’t safe yet for her son. She says parents in the district have already been notified of COVID-19 cases at school. She doesn’t think students have enough space to socially distance, and that’s a problem, especially at lunch when masks are off.
“We will feel much better once our son is vaccinated with the notion of sending him back into school,” she said. “However, this whole instance has shown me that the schools don’t value adaptability, creativity and flexibility.”
Rouse says she’s thinking beyond the pandemic in how to make remote learning sustainable. If the pilot goes well, the district may use remaining federal COVID relief money to train teachers. Rouse is considering if it’s possible to partner with other districts to pool resources.
“Remote learning is good for some students, not necessarily all, but having that option, I think is important, even down the road, after the pandemic is over,” Rouse said. “I’d like to think we’ve learned something through the pandemic that we can keep long term.”