Illinois students will be able to return to school in the fall, and the state says it’s “strongly encouraged,” but all public and private schools must follow new requirements to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
This comes after a spring of remote learning that was widely seen as uneven across Illinois.
“The benefits of in-person instruction can’t be overstated,” Gov. JB Pritzker said at a news conference Tuesday where the state released guidelines that will allow public and private K-12 schools, universities and community colleges to open their buildings in the fall.
As the state heads into Phase 4 of reopening on Friday, the Illinois State Board of Education’s recommendations lay out how to safely return to school buildings. This includes face masks for everyone. Pritzker announced the state will provide 2.5 million free cloth face masks for all students and staff.
“In Illinois, a child’s ability to afford or acquire a face covering should have no impact on whether they can go to school,” he said
State Schools Supt. Dr. Carmen Ayala said ISBE’s recommendations try to address as many scenarios as possible, and there is room for districts to create plans that fit their communities.
“Reopening in southern Illinois is not the same as reopening in suburban or urban Illinois,” Ayala said. “As much as possible, we have tried to provide common and clear requirements while preserving flexibility for each school and district to develop a reopening plan that meets the needs of the community.”
However, there are requirements that all schools must follow. Students and staff must maintain social distancing as much as possible, conduct health screenings and increase cleaning. Pritzker said funding is available to help schools with extra safety purchases, like PPE and hand sanitizer. No more than 50 people will be allowed in one space. However, depending on the size of a space like a classroom, the limit of people may be smaller.
Schools must also consider things like traffic flow of the hallways, how bus transportation may change and adding additional cleaning in the schedule. Children will be able to use playgrounds, but with limits. The state is discouraging field trips for now.
The state is also strongly recommending that if schools plan an alternative schedule that includes a mix of remote and in-person learning, that some children, like students learning English and students with special needs, get priority for in-person instruction.
Dr. Ayala also reiterated her call for districts to make purchases to close the digital divide. She said funding is available to help schools buy computers and internet service.
“Schools and districts must be prepared to return to remote learning if the virus surges again,” Dr. Ayala said.
The State Board of Education said school districts should have a plan in case they need to quickly return to remote learning.
Making up for lost time
The state recognizes that the quality of academics and ability to participate varied widely during the remote learning days, with some learning to be expected. Given that reality, ISBE offered guidance on how to transition students to the next grade level.
During the stay-at-home order, the state Board of Education recommended schools take a “hold harmless” approach to grading students. That meant a student’s grades could not fall below what they were before the pandemic. ISBE said schools can return to their traditional grading policies, but with modification if conditions are out of a student’s control because of the pandemic.
The guidance also looks at the possible learning loss. It recommends schools assess what was missed and screen to see where individual students stand.
ISBE said students should be given the opportunity to catch up. It recommends using the first few weeks of school to review previous lessons and allow separate time during the school day to fill learning gaps for kids who may need additional help.
Guidelines for dorms, college lecture halls
The state also released specific guidelines for reopening universities and community colleges. In-person classes can resume as long as classes are organized to allow people to remain six feet apart, students and faculty wear face masks and sanitizing products are available. Classes and other on campus gatherings must be fewer than 50 people in a single space.
Dining facilities, residence halls and other areas could also reopen under Phase 4, with limited occupancy and social distancing. The state said schools should develop plans for people to walk around buildings while remaining six feet apart to avoid congregating in hallways. Universities with residence halls also have to designate quarantine space to put students who test positive for the virus throughout the semester.
Ginger Ostro, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, said these reopening plans were designed to ensure students and employees remain safe and healthy. But they also keep in mind how important it is for students —- especially low-income or first generation college students — to get back to campus.
“Don’t let COVID-19 throw you off your college path,” Ostro said at the press briefing. “Stay on course for your credential or degree when schools open this fall.”
In other developments:
Five weeks of declining COVID-19 cases and deaths: “Lives are in your hands and you’ve saved so many with your actions,” said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the state’s Public Health director. “These actions have given Illinois a leg up with this virus.” Ezike announced another 601 people tested positive for the coronavirus in the past 24 hours, bringing the state’s total number of positive cases to date to 137,825. Those included another 38 deaths A total of 6,707 people have died..
State has tested nearly 1.4 million tests so far: “Please forget what you’ve heard — increased testing is a good thing,” Ezike said in an obvious reference to recent comments made by President Donald Trump about his efforts to slow down testing. In the past 24 hours, the state ran 20,507 tests, leading to a positivity rate of just under 3%.
Pritzker defends hiring decisions: At the news conference, Pritzker also responded to a WBEZ investigation that found Pritzker had hired 35 people recommended by House Speaker Michael Madigan, who is also chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois. Madigan had ultimately logged nearly 80 recommendations. When asked if Pritzker met with Madigan about the speaker’s recommendations, Pritzker said he was proud of the diversity of his hiring and added, “I got lots of recommendations from people that I knew.”
Reporters Tony Arnold and Dan Mihalopoulos contributed to this story.