Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Friday he will not reopen schools for in-person instruction because of the coronavirus, ensuring the unprecedented disruption to the education of the state’s 2.2 million students will continue through the end of the academic year.
The governor announced the decision at his daily afternoon press conference, joining 27 states and three U.S. territories that have either ordered or recommended the same action, decisions that have impacted more than 25 million students.
“Science says our students can’t go back to their normal routine,” Pritzker said. “To the parents who find themselves experiencing a world of emotions because of this pandemic, along with some extra stress with your kids at home all day, I promise you, you will get through this.”
Pritzker said parents should rest assured that “Illinois students are in good hands. Our teachers and our administrators are doing what they do best. They’re stepping up to ensure that every child in this state receives the education that they deserve.” The governor said state education officials will work with individual districts with specific needs to be addressed.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who didn’t attend the news conference with the governor because of scheduling conflicts, had pushed behind the scenes for an exception for Chicago Public Schools to reopen in June, sources said. That effort was rebuffed.
Asked about the closures at a separate press briefing Friday afternoon, Lightfoot said city and CPS officials have been planning for weeks to offer support in case of long closures, such as a food program that has already handed out 6 million meals over the past month and will continue through the end of the school year on June 18.
“We’re in an ongoing conversation, as you might expect, on a range of different issues,” the mayor said. “Obviously schools have come up, and we weighed in on what we thought would be the best thing for CPS.”
Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson later said in a statement that it was a difficult but necessary decision to protect the health of students, teachers and families.
“As the leader of this district, a CPS parent, and CPS alumna, I want families to know that I share their disappointment,” Jackson said. “We will continue to prioritize the well-being of our families and staff as we move forward with remote learning through the remainder of the school year, and we will emerge as a school district and a city stronger than before.”
The state ordered all Illinois districts in late March to develop remote learning plans. CPS started its program in earnest on Monday, after students returned from spring break. Remote learning plans will stay in effect for the rest of the academic year, but all state-mandated standardized tests have already been canceled for this year.
State Supt. of Education Carmen Ayala said Friday that additional state guidance will soon be released on grading and a series of other issues. Pritzker said education officials recommend districts adjust grading policies so they give feedback rather than concrete assessment.
Different plans for different districts
Above all else, the governor asked districts to work with families to fill their unique needs. Pritzker pointed to Dallas City, near the Iowa border, where a superintendent partnered with transportation officials to deliver meals and paper homework packets to homes. A district in Augusta, a town near Quincy, has kept all classwork non-digital so students without computers aren’t left behind. Another in Red Bud, just south of St. Louis, is handing out devices and honoring graduating seniors on social media.
District 201 Supt. Tim Truesdale, who oversees Morton East and West high schools in west suburban Cicero and Berwyn, said he had “hoped that kids could come back to school.” While the rollout of remote learning for the district’s 8,000 students had gone well, he said, it didn’t compare to students sitting in class.
“We’re glad kids still get a chance to see each other [in virtual sessions], but of course it’s just not the same,” he said.
Chicago hardest hit
The impact of the closure will be hardest felt in Chicago, where 355,000 students were set to be in school through late June. The remaining 1.8 million students statewide were to largely finish school in May or earlier in June.
Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, questioned why the governor would make such an early call when there’s still a possibility of salvaging at least a few weeks of a CPS school year that already had been disrupted and extended by a lengthy teachers’ strike.
“If the arc of this virus has flattened out enough to where children are able to get back to a regular course of life and that includes school sometime later in May and June, to give that option would be the best-case scenario,” Scott said Thursday. “ ... Parents, teachers, the district as a whole would love to be able to work with children at the end of the school year, making sure that our children get everything that they can out of the classroom.”
Students missing out
While the governor’s decision has been anticipated for some time, it’s still tough to swallow, Ald. Gilbert Villegas, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s City Council floor leader, said Friday.
“This has just been a bad school year from the get-go,” said Villegas.
Villegas said he felt “so sorry” for graduating seniors and 8th graders, as well as athletes and students scheduled to take college admission exams that have since been canceled.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” he said.
Diana Guzman, a senior at Hancock College Prep on the Southwest Side, was not surprised by the news — but she was still disappointed. Guzman said it would mean she could not say a last goodbye to her classmates, or thank her teachers for their support and help before she heads off to Earlham College in Indiana.
“I just feel like I hoped we would get a chance to go back,” Guzman said. “Even just to catch up with people, I wanted to see them.”
The closures prompted debates among parents.
Joetta Harris, a mother of two CPS students, felt the decision came too early. She called the closure “devastating and preemptive” and said it eliminated any possibility of bringing kids back if it turned out to be safe to do so.
“I want us to be safe, but I also want our state government and school district to be mindful that there is no reason to be preemptive and hasty unnecessarily,” Harris said. “Also, proms and graduations can and should be made up so the kids could at least say goodbye and have closure on one of the most important chapters of their lives.”
Harris took part in a discussion on the Facebook page of parent group Raise Your Hand, where some other parents supported the decision.
“Luckily my child’s school was already a step ahead,” another mother wrote. “The remote learning we got runs through June. We are good with this. Safe at home.”
Many others worried about how students in special education would receive the support they need to get through the tough times.
“I know it’s really hard for everyone but I’m glad Pritzker is making this call.” Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Alcott Elementary, said on Twitter. “It’s not safe to go back to schools with 30-50 in students a class and no nurse (or a nurse once a week).”
Digital divide remains
CPS is hampered by the fact that nearly 1 in 3 students did not have computers when remote learning started Monday. The district is in the process of distributing 100,000 laptops and tablets to students and announced this week that it would lend 12,000 internet hotspots to kids in temporary living situations.
While Villegas didn’t think some students could end up falling an entire academic year behind as a result of the disruptions, he said more needed to be done, including possibly continuing virtual learning over summer break “so we start the 2020-to-2021 school year not so far behind.
“We’re going to obviously have to ramp up the virtual classrooms. I’m positive that teachers will do a good job in implementing and adapting to the new normal until we can get a hold of this pandemic,” he said.
CTU: Chance to close equity gaps
Meanwhile, Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said all stakeholders, including the union and the mayor’s office, have to keep collaborating to make on-the-fly adjustments.
“We need to start rethinking how school is done, period. Our priority in this moment is how do we begin to close these equity gaps.
“I worry that our educators won’t be appreciated, that they won’t be seen as frontline and essential workers,” Davis Gates said. “And my heart is absolutely broken for kindergarteners, eighth graders, 12th graders, for athletes, celebrating their achievements. Our lives have been turned upside down. My heart goes out to them.”
The union leader said there needs to be a heightened focus on the most under-resourced schools and communities, like not only giving homeless students access to computers and internet, but homes, too.
She said the mayor has an opportunity to “exercise extraordinary leadership in this moment in front-loading the needs of students.”