All Illinois schools are required to resume in-person learning in the fall, according to a resolution passed unanimously by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) on Wednesday.
The resolution says all Illinois schools “must resume fully in-person learning” and only carves out one exception for remote learning. That’s for students ineligible for vaccination who also must quarantine. Currently children 12 and up are eligible to be vaccinated.
However, the state superintendent said school districts can also continue to offer remote learning to students on an individual basis using other parts of Illinois law.
“While online classes are a far better option than no classes at all, multiple studies show that students learn best when present in person,” said State Superintendent of Education Dr. Carmen Ayala.
A number of school administrators were pleased with the resolution.
“This is what the district has been working toward, and there seems to be a consensus at all levels of government that opening schools full-time in the fall is a critical priority,” Chicago Public Schools spokesperson James Gherardi said in a statement.
Ken Wallace, superintendent of the Maine Township High School district in the northwest suburbs, said the current hybrid model is hard on teachers who have to teach students in person and remotely at the same time. He thinks the statewide mandate will help teachers and boost attendance.
But some board members at Wednesday’s ISBE meeting felt the resolution language was too strong, given that there were other exceptions available under the law that allow for remote learning. And a number of parents and school administrators also raised concerns about younger children who are ineligible to be vaccinated or for vulnerable family members living in the same house.
Donna Leak is superintendent at Community Consolidated Schools District 168 in the south suburbs and ISBE vice chair. She said under current health guidance, three feet of distance is recommended between vaccinated people at school. She said many schools would not be able to offer fully in-person learning if that rule remains next fall.
“I think it’s just going to be really crucial for us to do some kind of support over the next month for school districts to work through some of those ideas,” Leak said.
Ayala said in the coming weeks more guidance and clarity will be available to school administrators from the state and the CDC. She said there is flexibility for school districts to continue offering remote learning next year, regardless of vaccination status.
In a message posted Tuesday, she noted that under existing Illinois law, school districts can provide individual students remote learning and can create “blended programs” that include a mix of face-to-face and online learning.
Ayala noted that schools have been operating under Gov. JB. Pritzker’s disaster proclamation, which allowed for remote learning. Schools around the state need to be ready for when that proclamation is lifted.
“It’s a signal to begin to get people thinking about returning to in-person learning,” she said. “We mentioned the proclamation. When that is no longer, we go back to pre-pandemic,” Ayala said.
Some school administrators commented that while in-person learning is better, remote schooling was more beneficial for specific students. Ayala said the resolution is about being responsive.
“We will continue to do what we have been doing through this entire pandemic year in providing feedback, providing the best guidance that we can, addressing the issues, helping students work through things, helping parents work through things,” she said. “We will continue to do that because there are a myriad of nuanced situations.”