Illinois students should return to classrooms this fall

Illinois students should return to classrooms this fall

Gov. J.B. Pritzker should set the expectation that Illinois schools will welcome students back to campus full-time for the 2020-2021 school year.

With summer well underway and the Independence Day holiday now past, parents of school-age kids – who have been home since Gov. J.B. Pritzker first ordered all Illinois schools to close by March 17 – are looking ahead to the start of the new school year.

But while school starts in August in much of the state, most Illinois parents are still in the dark as to exactly what that will look like.

The Illinois State Board of Education, or ISBE, in conjunction with the Illinois Department of Public Health, or IDPH, on June 23 released reopening guidelines, which “encourage” schools and districts to “provide completely in-person instruction for all students,” but leave the decision of whether to reopen campuses, as well as specific logistical details, to local education authorities.

Thus, Illinois families’ plans for work and child care are on hold while they wait to hear whether their children’s schools will reopen for full-time classroom instruction, use “blended” schedules combining remote and in-person classes, or rely completely on distance learning.

At a press briefing announcing the guidelines, Pritzker said “[c]lassroom learning provides necessary opportunities for our students to learn, socialize and grow” and said “[t]he benefits of in-person instruction can’t be overstated.”

Despite the official encouragement of the Pritzker administration, statements by teachers’ union officials and some school districts have hinted in-person instruction might not be the norm across Illinois this fall.

Illinois students cannot afford the loss of more classroom instruction time, engaging activities or socialization with peers. Their families should not have to hire additional child care, forego employment, or continue to disrupt their work schedules to supervise lessons at home. At the same time, ISBE and districts should make teacher safety a priority in spending the additional $570 million in federal aid that will flow to Illinois schools.

The governor should clarify now that all school districts in Illinois should be preparing to welcome students back to classrooms full-time in August and September.

Phase 4 guidelines for schools

Pritzker’s reopening plan, “Restore Illinois,” provides schools and day cares can reopen in Phase 4, subject to guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Each region of Illinois entered Phase 4 June 26.

ISBE’s reopening guidelines were developed in concert with IDPH and include health-related mandates all public and private schools in the state must follow. The requirements include:

  • Face coverings for all students and teachers, 5 million of which will be provided by the state of Illinois to all public school students, faculty and staff
  • A ban on gatherings of more than 50 people in one space, such as a school bus, classroom or hallway
  • Maintaining social distancing whenever possible
  • Symptom checks or self-screening for COVID-19 symptoms
  • Increased cleaning and disinfecting of school buildings

Most of the recommendations in the document, however, are suggestions for minimizing physical contact between people in school buildings and for avoiding surface contamination. For example, the guidelines recommend, but do not require, desks be arranged to face in the same direction and to allow for six feet of distance between them. Similarly, the guidelines recommend band conductors stand at least 10 feet away from the first row of musicians and students sanitize their hands before touching library books.

The guidelines also refer to Public Act 101-0643, which requires districts to develop remote and hybrid learning plans in the event a public emergency necessitates a switch to home-based learning.

Resistance to returning to classrooms

The state’s guidelines have met resistance from teachers’ union officials. The Illinois Education Association and Illinois Federation of Teachers issued a press release stating “[p]arents, students and community members will feel safe returning to in-person instruction only when it is safely done by reducing class size and having a school nurse and necessary supplies in every school building.” The release further notes “resources and collective bargaining” are “some of our biggest concerns” that ISBE must address.

The Chicago Teachers Union stated the ISBE guidelines recognize “it is possible, or even likely that we go back and forth between in-person and remote school, or have in-person school but retain elements of remote school – a so-called ‘blended’ approach.” CTU warned reopening cannot be done safely without significantly more resources, and the union “will not be silent if CPS plans fail to meet the safety needs of our students and school communities.” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said returning safely to school “is not an easy undertaking. We’re not going to snap our fingers and be back there,” according to Fox 32 News. Davis Gates told the Chicago Tribune on June 16, “[I]t would be a moral failure for our mayor to create a plan for students to just be pushed back into our school communities without the proper support and the proper infrastructure to keep them safe.”

Teachers’ union officials did not mention the nearly $570 million Illinois schools will have received through the federal CARES Act, or how much in additional funds they think is required to reopen.

Some school district leaders are also discussing plans for the new school year that do not contemplate in-person instruction as the norm. Prior to ISBE’s release of its guidelines, Kankakee School District 111 had drawn up its own plans for fall. According to the plan, the district intends to offer parents a limited choice of: (1) exclusively remote learning, (2) hybrid learning where students do most of their work at home and only come to school two days a week or partial days, and (3) traditional in-classroom learning. The district noted spots in full-time classrooms will be limited and prioritized for families whose work does not allow them to remain at home supervising remote education.

Meanwhile, Glenbrook High School District 225 in the Chicago suburbs has a tentative plan that contemplates starting the school year with remote instruction and “attempt[ing] to gradually return small groups of students to the schools,” provided health considerations allow for this, according to the Chicago Tribune. Final plans for fall are in the works and will be presented to the school board on July 27.

Glenview School District 34 is still considering remote learning, in-person instruction and hybrid options, according to a school spokesperson.

Opening Illinois schools for in-person instruction is best for children

All policies must be subject to cost-benefit analyses. Given what is now known about the COVID-19 virus, as well as the detrimental effects of school closures, the calculation weighs heavily in favor of full-time, in-person instruction for the vast majority of Illinois schoolchildren.

Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement “strongly advocate[ing] that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school” and urging “policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within schools must be balanced with the known harms to children, adolescents, families, and the community by keeping children at home.”

Health risks are small for most kids

It is well established that children are much less likely than adults to become severely ill with COVID-19 or to require hospitalization. A new study showed people under 20 are also about half as likely to contract the illness in the first place and are likely to remain asymptomatic or to have “subclinical” or mild symptoms. The American Academy of Pediatrics summarized the medical knowledge concerning COVID-19 and children: “[T]he preponderance of evidence indicates that children and adolescents are less likely to be symptomatic and less likely to have severe disease resulting from SARS-CoV-2 infection. In addition, children may be less likely to become infected and to spread infection.”

Illinois schools can provide for remote learning to accommodate students with serious health conditions or household members with health problems that put them in high-risk categories.  This can be done without sacrificing the valuable in-person instruction from which the majority of Illinois students will benefit.

Other countries have reopened schools with success

Many schools in Europe reopened in April and May, and among countries that opened their schools, such as Denmark, Finland, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands, there is no evidence of increased community spread of the virus. Francestarted opening schools in May, and the vast majority of French schoolchildren resumed in-person classes in June. And rather than preemptively keeping all schools shuttered, it is possible to close specific schools should a large outbreak occur there, as happened in Israel.

Moreover, ISBE’s guidelines advise plans for blended learning can actually increase students’ – and school communities’ – potential exposure to the coronavirus by increasing the number of people students spend time with in a given week. Given that 700,000 Illinois children between the ages of 6 and 18 live in households where all parents work, and that 1 million to 1.2 million Illinois children live in such households if children from newborn to age 6 are included, families must rely on other forms of child care when school campuses are not open throughout the work week.

Unions have expressed concerns for teachers’ safety, and school districts and schools should take precautions to make returning to school as safe as possible for faculty and staff.  Schools and districts can address these concerns by adhering to the health precautions mandated by the ISBE and IDPH guidelines. To address these concerns, the state could take steps to provide enhanced protection for teachers in high-risk categories, such as letting those teachers conduct online learning for children with serious health conditions, or having those teachers record lessons and grade papers and tests while teachers without compromised health are in the classrooms to assist students. The additional $570 million in CARES Act aid that will flow to Illinois schools can go toward these expenses, as well as toward access to technology for students whose health or family circumstances require them to stay at home.

Remote learning is inferior to in-person instruction

For most children and their families, remote learning is a poor substitute for in-person instruction. A Brookings Institution study in May 2020 showed “deeply concerning” estimates the effect of the COVID-19 school closures on student achievement could mean, compared to a typical school year, students would have retained merely 70% of gains over the previous year in reading and less than 50% of the gains in math, with students in lower grades possibly falling a year behind in math.

A study of remote learning among Chicago Public Schools students the week of May 11 showed less than 60% of CPS students participated in remote learning three or more days per week, and about 25% of CPS students did not log on at all to the digital learning platform that week. Alarmingly, the study also showed since CPS closed all schools in March, 2,200 students had not been reached by school personnel even once.

And this is on top of the loss of 11 days of instruction during the Chicago Teachers Union’s strike in October 2019.

ISBE’s guidelines acknowledge “regression during remote learning is expected,” and an entire section is devoted to “addressing the loss of academic skills and knowledge during the school closure.”

School closures have harmed children’s mental, social and emotional well-being

Medical experts have warned about the effects on children’s mental and social-emotional health. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician who directs the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital and is the editor-in-chief of the journal JAMA Pediatrics told NPR: “The social-emotional needs of children to connect with other children in real time and space … this is immensely important for young children in particular.” Christakis pointed to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics that revealed increased levels of depression and anxiety among children under lockdown in China. Christakis further noted “risks posed by delaying school openings are real and sizeable, particularly for students from low-income families.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics expressed concern over the “considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality” from “[l]engthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services, [which] often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation.”

Similarly, a study in Italy showed 65% of parents with children under age 6 reported behavior problems and developmental regression during the lockdown, and 71% of respondents with children between 6 and 18 described phenomena such as anxiety, shortness of breath and sleep disturbances among their children. In the U.S., a Gallup poll June 16 found nearly 3 out of 10 parents surveyed said the school closures and social distancing were already having a negative effect on their children’s mental health. An additional 14% said their children’s mental health would suffer if these measures continued beyond a few more weeks. Parents without a college degree were likelier to say their children’s mental health was harmed.

The shutdown of schools has been particularly difficult for children with special needs and their families, who have gone without much-needed in-person help from therapists and teachers. In an article in the Washington Post, epidemiologist and professor at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health Daniel T. Halperin noted the toll extended absence from school and social connections would have on children with autism, Down syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other special needs. Halperin urged weighing heavily the cost to millions of school children of the “potentially long-term academic, social and vocational disadvantages” of not reopening schools for in-person learning.

Many families are not able to supervise home-based learning

Pew Research has reported 40% of U.S. workers had jobs that could be done remotely as of February 2020. Moreover, only 34% of Black workers and 26% of Hispanic workers had jobs they could do at home, versus 44% of white workers. And while 62% of workers with a bachelor’s degree or more could work from home, only 22% of workers with only a high school degree, and 9% of workers without a high school degree had that ability. This means many parents cannot work from home and supervise online learning, and families who are from racial and ethnic minority communities and parents with lower levels of education are more likely to have difficulty supervising their children at home should schools not reopen full-time in the fall.

Even parents who are able to work from home have had a difficult time managing their own work while also supervising their children’s studies.

It is not surprising a survey of parents in Northbrook-Glenview School District 30 showed more than two-thirds – 67% – would send their children to school every day if given the option, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune. In Glenview School District 34 almost 70% of parents said they would certainly send their children to school for in-person learning if it were offered.

Illinois students should go back to campus this fall

Pritzker should make clear he expects all Illinois schools to reopen for in-person instruction this fall, absent unforeseen developments surrounding the virus. School districts can look to ISBE and IDPH’s guidelines to plan for this, with remote and hybrid learning guidelines as last-resort backups and to accommodate students with special health considerations. Illinois students have already lost so much valuable classroom time, and students with the greatest needs and challenges have the most to lose if schools don’t open their doors.

Want more? Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox.

Thank you, we'll keep you informed!