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Education & Schools

Illinois Board of Education Moves To Require In-Person Learning For Upcoming School Year

The Illinois State Board of Education is supporting a full return to in-person learning in K-12 schools starting this fall, even as members of the board are concerned the resolution leaves certain students behind.

The resolution approved Wednesday acknowledges the state's progress toward Phase 5 of the Restore Illinois plan, which is set to begin June 11. The resolution notes staff and most students alike have "meaningful protection" against COVID-19 through vaccines, along with rapid testing.

"Reconnecting with teachers and peers in-person is essential for students’ mental health and social-emotional development, especially after the prolonged isolation of the pandemic," the resolution reads in part. "Students, particularly students who struggle academically, still learn better while in person alongside their teachers."

The resolution comes as the American Federation of Teachers shows its support for the reopening of schools in the fall.

State Education Superintendent Carmen Ayala said the resolution came about as superintendents across the state consider budgeting and staffing decisions for next school year.

"It's necessary for us to transition toward a future in which we are no longer under a gubernatorial disaster proclamation and the pandemic-related remote learning statutes no longer apply," said Ayala. "This was getting enough attention that we felt it was necessary to bring to the board as quickly as we could."

Katharine Eastvold, a parent of four children enrolled in Springfield School District 186, urged the board not to adopt the resolution. She said school districts should continue to allow remote learning for students who will not be vaccinated before the start of the coming school year, such as her 10-year-old daughter.

"Districts should have that flexibility in order to protect their own communities at a time when we know how to end this pandemic, but we're not quite there yet," said Eastvold.

Children ages 12 to 15 became eligible for the Pfizer vaccine earlier this month. Trials are underway across the country to test that vaccine's effect on children 11 and younger.

Board Chair Darren Reisberg said the board has aimed to bring schools back toward in-person learning for some time.

"The spirit of this resolution is something that this board has been driving towards for the entirety of the pandemic," said Reisberg.

The Illinois board's vote to support the resolution was unanimous. But members such as Vice Chairperson Donna Leak said the resolution still needs clarity on when schools can keep using remote learning.

"I don't want to all of a sudden have people going to have to homeschool, because we've now said, 'No, you have to be there,'" said Leak. "Some parents are saying 'I just need till December.'"

Remote learning would still be made available under the declaration "to those students who the school district believes would be most appropriate to be offering remote instruction to," according to Reisberg. However, school districts would only be required to provide it for students who are under quarantine and ineligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Board member Roger Eddy, who was appointed in February, expressed his concerns over the wording of the resolution, saying it "seems to be sort of a very difficult in some cases mandate."

"I just want to make sure that the way this is worded really doesn't eliminate that local school district's decision on an individual basis for whatever reason that they feel remote learning is the proper implementation," said Eddy.

ISBE legal counsel Trisha Olson said while students in public schools would not necessarily be required to get a vaccine, they would not be eligible for remote learning under the provisions of the resolution alone. Olson said the methods districts take could vary, depending on whether school boards choose to implement their own policies for when remote learning would be provided.

"I think there are many different nuances to this, given the variety of education options that we have in the state," said Olson.

Some advocacy groups say the change comes too soon.

John Burkey is executive director of the Large Unit District Association. He said he believes schools should have most students back in person as soon as possible. But he said schools should have room to adapt to what students need, noting that some students excelled during remote learning.

He said going back to the way things were before the pandemic would be a missed opportunity.

"We need schools to have the flexibility to put students at the appropriate place on the continuum that's most beneficial for them," said Burkey. "It's important in Illinois for us to look at redefining what a student attendance day means, we have to get past the false premise that time in a classroom seat equals quality."

The board's decision is non-binding. Superintendent Carmen Ayala said she intends to make the official declaration at the end of the current school year.

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