When Tony Sanders learned the Illinois State Board of Education could mandate fully in-person classes next school year, he decided to delay a reopening presentation he’d planned for his school board Monday evening.
Sanders, superintendent of the Elgin-based School District U-46, said he made the call after seeing that an ISBE resolution set for a vote Wednesday would allow limited exceptions for remote learning. He is also encouraging other Illinois school superintendents to read and share the draft resolution in case it affects their current plans.
A draft of the resolution states that beginning in the fall, “all schools must resume fully in-person learning for all student attendance days, provided that ... remote instruction be made available for students who are not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine and are under a quarantine order by a local public health department or the Illinois Department of Public Health.” The “and,” specifying that vaccine-ineligible students would also need to be under a quarantine order in order to have remote instruction provided, is in bold.
For students with documented medical needs that may prevent them from getting a COVID-19 vaccine or make them more vulnerable to the virus, Sanders said U-46 has been working on options for a distance learning program with dedicated remote teachers who would not also have in-person students.
Sanders, who has served on state working groups involved in creating guidance for pandemic education, said he believes ISBE has generally tried to involve school leaders and educators. But he said the position reflected in the resolution was not explained or alerted to superintendents.
“I think they’ve made a good effort to hear from the field. This one just surprised me,” Sanders said.
When another superintendent brought the ISBE agenda to his attention, he shared the draft resolution on Twitter to make others aware, later adding some commentary.
“I do hope that in the end we have some flexibility,” Sanders told the Tribune. “We have a lot of federal resources coming our way that we really could use to innovate. ... We need less rules, not more.”
ISBE spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said the resolution was drafted “under the leadership of the State Superintendent of Education and based on feedback from the field.”
The declaration would be enforceable, Matthews said, citing state law that gives State Superintendent Carmen Ayala the authority to “declare a requirement to use remote learning days or blended remote learning days for a school district, multiple school districts, a region, or the entire State” during a gubernatorial disaster proclamation.
Students who are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine or who are not under quarantine order may meet criteria for home or hospital instruction, Matthews said.
According to the school code, “a child qualifies for home or hospital instruction if it is anticipated that, due to a medical condition, the child will be unable to attend school, and instead must be instructed at home or in the hospital, for a period of 2 or more consecutive weeks or on an ongoing intermittent basis.”
“School districts have flexibility in other parts of the law to offer remote learning to students on an individual basis if that will best meet the students’ learning needs,” Matthews said, citing Illinois legislation that currently allows districts to provide individual students with remote learning or blended programs.
Chicago Public Schools, the biggest school district in Illinois and third in the U.S. with 638 schools and 341,000 students, has already been planning for a mostly in-person fall. CEO Janice Jackson, who is leaving CPS in June, said earlier in May that CPS was “looking to the state... to get us back to normal from a schooling perspective where everyone is expected to go to school in a brick-and-mortar building every single day unless there are extenuating circumstances, medical circumstances, that prevent them from coming to school.”
CPS officials did not provide comment for this article.
Since CPS started its phased-in reopening plan, the district has made in-person learning optional. CPS high schools, the last to reopen under an agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union, began offering a hybrid model in April with in-person classes capped at two days a week for many students. Only about 22% of district students attended in-person classes the week of April 19, according to CPS data.
Of Illinois’ 849 school districts, 423 are provided blended or hybrid learning, 398 are fully in person and only 28 are fully remote, according to state data last updated May 3.
The ISBE resolution to be voted on Wednesday notes the state is expected to move to Phase 5 of the Restore Illinois plan on June 11, at which point businesses and public gatherings would be allowed to operate normally.
“Guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health is forthcoming regarding updated mitigations for schools in Phase 5 of the Restore Illinois plan,” according to the resolution.
The resolution cites rapid testing programs and vaccines already received by many school employees and students 12 and older, along with ongoing trials in younger children. The resolution also references studies supporting in-person learning for more positive academic outcomes and mental health.
It also figures schools can afford needed supports: “Illinois schools are receiving $7.8 billion in federal pandemic relief funds for the safe return to in-person learning and to address learning gaps caused by the pandemic through strategies, such as tutoring, summer school, and community partnerships for mental health.”
Sanders said he hoped the federal funding can also enable school districts to try new learning models to serve students with varying medical conditions and learning needs.
Unless there is a change at the state level, Sanders said U-46 doesn’t have plans to add COVID-19 shots to the list of required immunizations and wasn’t sure about asking families to disclose students’ vaccination status.
ISBE “is not currently issuing guidance mandating vaccines,” Matthews said.
The state, like many local school systems, has instead focused on vaccine education and access. In a message last week, Ayala “strongly encouraged” school districts to host vaccination events before the school year ends “to visibly support vaccination and leverage the school community to improve vaccine uptake.”
In Chicago, CPS, CTU and the city’s Department of Public Health are partnering on a series of vaccine events in school parking lots, intended to offer access to CPS families in neighborhoods with the most need for the shots but open to the public at no cost.
A study published in April by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 29% of parents planned to get their child the shot as soon as they could, while 32% said they prefer to take a wait-and-see approach, 15% said they’d only get their child the vaccine if their school required it, and 19% said they would “definitely” not get their child vaccinated. Parents were more likely to embrace the vaccine as their children got older, ranging from 24% for children younger than 5 to 31% for children ages 16 and 17.
More than 32,000 vaccine doses have been given to children ages 12 to 15 in Illinois since eligibility expanded last week, according to state data.
In light of its announcement last week that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in many settings, the CDC has clarified that schools should still require face coverings.
Noting the mask update “raised questions for schools about how to proceed in the current school year,” the CDC recommended that schools keep using COVID-19 mitigation strategies “for at least the remainder of the 2020-2021 academic school year.”
With eligibility so recently expanded and full immunity not occurring until two weeks after the second Pfizer shot, most students who are old enough won’t be fully vaccinated by the end of the school year and many school-age children still aren’t eligible, the CDC reasoned.
The CDC projected updated guidance for schools “in the coming weeks” to help with planning for the fall.