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School’s in? Pritzker says classrooms can reopen in fall — with masks, temperature checks, other precautions

Schools must follow Illinois Department of Public Health requirements to reopen. Besides face coverings and social distancing, those include prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people, symptom screenings and temperature checks for anyone entering school buildings, and increased cleaning and disinfection. 

Middle school pupils are back in their classroom in Boulogne-Billancourt, outside Paris, on Monday, as primary and middle schools reopen in France.
Middle school pupils are back in their classroom in Boulogne-Billancourt, outside Paris, on Monday, as primary and middle schools reopen in France.
Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images

Reading and writing and — restrictions.

Illinois’ 2 million-plus elementary and high school students can return to classrooms this fall for the three R’s and more under a set of public health requirements issued Tuesday by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, as schools across the state look to bounce back from a school year cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.

Pritzker’s office is also proctoring the cautious resumption of in-person classes at colleges and universities, all following the principles of Phase 4 of his reopening plan that’s set to take effect statewide Friday.

That means come fall, teachers, students and staffers will all have to wear face coverings and practice social distancing, while gatherings of 50 or more are prohibited. The state’s 852 school districts will have to beef up cleaning and disinfection, and each will need to “conduct symptom screenings and temperature checks or require self-certification that individuals entering school buildings are symptom free,” under guidelines developed with the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“This fall will not be business as usual,” state Schools Supt. Carmen Ayala said.

And it’s not set in stone, according to the governor.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker puts away his face mask before delivering his daily Illinois coronavirus update in April.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker puts away his face mask before delivering his daily Illinois coronavirus update in April.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

“In the event of a dramatic reversal of local health metrics, or a second wave of the virus at some point during the school year, schools and districts must also prepare for the potential need to return to remote instruction,” Pritzker said.

That’s what happened in mid-March, when thousands of schools scrambled to institute virtual classes after Pritzker first shuttered schools as COVID-19 began on a path that has torn through all but one of Illinois’ 102 counties.

Since then, the state’s death toll has climbed to 6,707 among a total of 137,825 people who have tested positive for the virus. But its spread has slowed significantly over the last month, a trend that continued Tuesday with the latest 38 deaths and 601 new cases announced.

“The good news is that Illinois has seen declining cases and declining fatality totals week after week for the past five consecutive weeks,” public health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said.

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The challenge will be containing those numbers as more businesses reopen later this week and students return to campuses this fall.

“As we reopen aspects of our daily lives that coronavirus took away, it’s important to emphasize that the virus has not gone away,” Pritzker said. “It is still affecting and infecting people, some of whom are hospitalized and have severe complications.”

Pritzker said the state’s school reopening plan, hatched with infectious disease experts, “recognizes that Illinois is a diverse state, and school districts and institutions of higher education across Illinois will face unique challenges in how they’ll operate within their communities.”

Children queue to enter their classrooms at the Ziegelau elementary school in Strasbourg, eastern France, on Monday.
Children queue to enter their classrooms at the Ziegelau elementary school in Strasbourg, eastern France, on Monday.
Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

The state Emergency Management Agency will provide more than 2.5 million cloth face masks for students and staffers, Pritzker said.

And as in other local facets of his reopening plan, school districts can choose to set more stringent reopening requirements. But the state Board of Education “strongly encourages schools and districts to provide in-person instruction for all students, especially those under age 13, to ensure children have rich instructional environments.”

The state guidelines mirror many previously drafted by Chicago Public Schools officials. Those city-specific requirements haven’t been finalized, according to CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton, who said the district “is eager to open its doors to students as soon as it is safe to do so.” Summer school will be held virtually.

Middle school pupils in their classroom in Boulogne-Billancourt, outside Paris, on Monday, as primary and middle schools reopen in France.
Middle school pupils in their classroom in Boulogne-Billancourt, outside Paris, on Monday, as primary and middle schools reopen in France.
Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images

“We will continue to work closely with [the Chicago Department of Public Health] and the City of Chicago to ensure we are able to open safely,” Bolton said in an email. “Nothing is more important than the safety of our students, staff and families, and we remain committed to widespread engagement to ensure our plan for reopening supports the diverse needs of our entire school community.”

CPS officials are discussing their plan with stakeholders including the Chicago Teachers Union, whose President Jesse Sharkey said the state guidelines are “both too general and too vague to serve as a useful road map for CPS.

“In short, we’re going to be required to figure out many of the most critical features of school work for ourselves, in bargaining,” Sharkey said in a statement.

Leaders of the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Education Association were similarly critical, saying the state road map doesn’t “address some of the most pressing concerns that make it difficult to social distance appropriately and monitor the health and well-being of all our education support staff, teachers and students.

“It is no secret that remote learning has been a challenge to teachers, parents and students and our membership looks forward to returning to in-person instruction, but anxiety remains high over class sizes and the lack of school nurses and other health and safety resources,” the organizations said in a joint statement. “We continue to be concerned about the deep disparities that exist in schools, especially in our Black and Brown communities, who still lack access to the internet and computers.”

Read the state’s full school reopening guidelines here: