Illinois school superintendents demand immediate COVID-19 guidance

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
June 25, 2021

Illinois school superintendents demand immediate COVID-19 guidance

Illinois schools will be treated more restrictively than any other public venues, threatening students’ educations across the state. Superintendents are demanding up-to-date, commonsense COVID-19 guidance to prep for the upcoming school year.

Even as many Illinois school children are enjoying their first weeks of summer, school superintendents are faced with a serious question: how to best prepare for COVID-19 protocols during the 2021-2022 school year.

The state’s actions in recent weeks have done more to muddle than to help answer that question.

On May 24, the Illinois State Board of Education issued a Resolution Supporting In-Person Instruction. According to that resolution, a forthcoming declaration from the state superintendent of education will require public schools to provide fully in-person learning for the 2021-2022 academic school year, with remote instruction available only to students who 1) are not eligible for the vaccine (i.e., under 12 years of age) and 2) are under a quarantine order by the local health department or the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The resolution also said masks are still required in schools for the 2021-2022 school year.

Then on June 11, the state entered Phase 5 of the governor’s reopening plan. Under Phase 5, “normal operations” resume, with no capacity restrictions on large events. While businesses are still encouraged to support social distancing, there is no mandate. Businesses are allowed to have their own rules on capacity and masking.

In other words, schools will be operating under tighter restrictions than what is deemed safe in most other public venues.

That discrepancy and lack of guidance led superintendents with the Large Unit District Association, consisting of 52 pre-K to grade 12 school districts with enrollments of at least 3,500 students, to send a letter June 21 to ISBE asking that “full guidance from ISBE for the fall be issued immediately.”

The association focused its concerns on two areas: quarantining and social distancing.

Noting that even though their school districts have had very few cases of documented COVID-19 spread during 2020-2021, thousands of students were quarantined, and that was “very disruptive” to learning. Yet during that year, some form of remote learning was available to them. Those same remote learning options won’t exist under the ISBE declaration.

That led the association to conclude, “When considering the cost/benefit of both health and education, we do not believe the current quarantining guidance is most appropriate for our students.”

As for social distancing, the letter noted it is impossible for most of the association’s member schools to operate at 100% capacity with 6-foot distancing guidelines. Even under 3-foot guidelines, modifications are necessary and would require “significant adjustments” – the planning and expenditures for which “need to happen now.”

The association requested two actions from the ISBE: 1) that social distancing, quarantining and masking guidelines in schools be consistent with health guidelines of Phase 5 as applied in other venues in Illinois, and 2) that full guidance from ISBE for the fall be issued immediately.

Association members noted they thought “new guidance” would be forthcoming reflecting the May ISBE resolution and the June entry into Phase 5. “Unfortunately, to date, that has not happened.”

And that places school districts at a serious disadvantage when trying to plan for the upcoming school year.

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