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State education officials say school districts must start remote learning Tuesday

The state has also ended this spring’s standardized testing, including the SAT, after receiving a federal waiver.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker at a daily briefing in March 2020.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker has ordered all Illinois public schools to start remote learning on Tuesday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Illinois education officials are directing districts statewide to implement concrete remote learning plans for all schools starting Tuesday, and a new order from the governor has suspended state-mandated standardized testing.

The state’s new, more tangible education plan for the coronavirus closures came in the form of an executive order Friday from Gov. J.B. Pritzker and extensive guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education, which until now hadn’t offered specific recommendations for remote learning.

The updates indicate a recognition that proper remote learning “through whatever means possible” will be necessary as it becomes clearer that Illinois schools, which the governor ordered closed earlier this month, may not resume in-person classes April 8 as currently planned. Chicago Public Schools have already announced it will stay closed through April 20.

Students won’t be forced to make up any of these missed days, but the governor’s order gives districts the option of adding days into the summer while allowing teachers and staff to earn extra pay for any added time.

The state has also ended this spring’s standardized testing, including the SAT, after receiving a federal waiver. ISBE said it would work on options to allow current high school juniors to take the SAT in the fall.

ISBE said it expects all schools to implement the recommendations but offered flexibility, recognizing that many districts have faced challenges operating remote learning plans because of a technology divide that has left low-income students and even some teachers without access to computers or internet.

The new 62-page learning guidance was developed in consultation with 63 members of a state advisory group, including teachers, students, principals and other school personnel. The recommendations include general best practices for instruction, grading, communication, social-emotional needs and family engagement, among other concerns.

The state said districts opting to use non-digital learning methods should provide materials at schools for pickup or deliver them by school bus. But remote instruction isn’t that simple, ISBE said, and “involves more than just printing non-digital materials, uploading files, and sharing links to media content.” Districts also must figure out how to engage students and actually teach them, not just give out homework packets, digital or not.

On grading, the state said districts should adopt a system of “pass” or “incomplete” so “no educational harm to any child” is done. All students should be allowed to redo or make up assignments, ISBE said.

“A focus on keeping children emotionally and physically safe, fed, and engaged in learning should be our first priority during this unprecedented time,” the guidance said.

Before the guidance was released, an ISBE survey of more than 650 Illinois school districts found 82% have used a mix of digital and paper instruction over the past week. Only 9% have used exclusively digital or paper. The survey made clear that every town and school has approached the challenge in a different way.

The districts using paper instruction either gave students printed packets the last day before schools closed, made materials available for pick-up at schools or delivered instructional materials via bus. More than 200 districts have used that last option, which would likely allow for the most active non-digital instruction for kids who don’t have computer or internet access.

Most said they’ve communicated with students via email or another online platform and gave students printed packets. More than half have used live video-chat for instruction. Only seven districts said they still haven’t implemented any remote learning strategies.