In Illinois, Remote Learning Options This Fall Will Be Left To Local School Districts
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
Illinois schools will be required to resume fully in-person learning in the fall, subject to favorable public health conditions. Whether remote options will still exist for families will largely be left to the discretion of local school districts.
The Illinois State Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution Wednesday that would require all student attendance days to be in-person, after school districts were forced to remote learning this year because of COVID-19.
State Superintendent Carmen Ayala said school leaders were seeking clarity about expectations for the fall so they can begin planning and know where to focus the federal dollars coming in to assist schools. In an email statement, ISBE Executive Director of Communications Jackie Matthews said Ayala is planning to finalize this declaration after the conclusion of the current academic school year, subject to favorable public health conditions at that time.
Approving the resolution was a “signal” to educators about the direction things are moving, she said.
Before the board vote, a few parents spoke during the public hearing to share their reservations about the resolution.
Jen Cresse is the parent of a third-grader who is immunocompromised. In her testimony to the board, she said that her family had to separate into two households in order to isolate and keep their youngest child safe.
While she knows remote learning wasn’t a perfect solution, Cresse said it provided some normalcy for her son.
“Having friends on the other side of the screen is the only thing keeping him engaged with school right now,” she said.
Who can receive remote instruction?
Under the resolution, schools are only required to offer remote instruction in the fall to students who are both ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine and are under a quarantine order.
In Illinois School Code, there are other limited provisions that require schools to provide different modes of learning, including home or hospital learning.
Trisha Olson, legal counsel for ISBE, told the board that districts have other options to allow for remote learning for students if they choose to do so. Those options just wouldn’t be required of schools under the resolution.
Twice in the meeting, Board Member David Lett asked Ayala what ISBE’s position would be if they heard from a parent with a child enrolled in a district that refused to provide remote learning plans outside of what was required, and if the board would lean in favor of encouraging districts to provide opportunities.
While Ayala said ISBE would work with the district and the parent to “resolve the situation,” she didn’t indicate whether ISBE would err on the side of providing remote opportunities.
“There aren’t any clean cut answers to any of these different nuances,” she said. “We have to take it on a case by case basis. What are the circumstances of the family? Of the child?”
The vast majority of school districts are now operating with in-person or hybrid plans, which includes in-person and remote components, according to data from ISBE. Districts were required to provide remote options for students because of COVID in the 2020–2021 school year.
Not all kids can get vaccinated yet
About half of Illinois students, including pre-kindergarteners, are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine because of their age, based on 2020 enrollment data.
While three different brands of the COVID-19 vaccine have been widely used in the U.S., only the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine has been authorized for anyone under the age of 18. It was authorized for children as young as 12 last week, and youth vaccinations began in Illinois and across the country soon after.
The clinical trials for both the Moderna-NIAID and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been expanded to include children, but neither has yet been authorized for expanded use.
Pfizer is planning to apply to the Food and Drug Administration in September for emergency authorization of the vaccine for children aged 2 to 11, according to National Public Radio.
Based on Pfizer’s own projection, the youngest Illinois students wouldn’t have their first shot before school starts in August, let alone be considered fully inoculated.
“I know I would not feel comfortable sending my first grader to school until he’s vaccinated,” parent David Wendeln told the board during public participation. “ … How can the board allow, let alone require, students to attend in-person before the vaccine is available to them? I think students must be allowed to learn remotely until the vaccine is available to them.”
The Pfizer vaccine is a two-dose shot. The second dose needs to be given 21 days after the first, and it takes two more weeks after the second shot for the vaccine to reach its peak effectiveness.
Planning for more school guidance
ISBE members had a lengthy discussion before voting on the resolution, mostly related to the language of the resolution and how it might be misconstrued.
For now, Ayala said ISBE is awaiting more guidance and is beginning to work on a Q&A document to help districts understand what to expect.
“I think there’s a lot of guidance that we’ll need to follow that is reasonable and practical for schools,” Vice Chairperson Donna Leak said. “That last line (of the resolution) — we’re going to have to do a lot of work to let schools know we’re doing the right thing.”
Megan Valley is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.