Illinois set to mandate full-time in-person learning at public schools this fall

State Supt. of Education Carmen Ayala said “our top priority is our students, and we know that in most cases, in-person learning is in their best interest.”

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Students head to class at Lane Tech College Prep High School on the North Side, on, April 19, 2021. Monday marked the start of the fourth academic quarter for Chicago Public Schools and for the first time in 11 months all 515 non-charter schools — including high schools — were open for in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Illinois public schools will be required to return to full-time in-person learning next fall, though concerns remain about students who aren’t yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Illinois State Board of Education unanimously voted Wednesday to support a soon-to-be-announced mandate that “all schools must resume fully in-person learning” in the fall. State education officials are expected to formalize the move at the end of this school year.

The only exception is for children who both aren’t yet eligible for a vaccine and are under a state quarantine order — meaning primarily kids under 12. Illinois is set to fully reopen in June.

In a letter posted online this week, State Supt. of Education Carmen Ayala, who will be the one mandating the fall return, said “our top priority is our students, and we know that in most cases, in-person learning is in their best interest.

“Although online classes are a far better option than no classes at all, multiple studies show that students learn best when present in-person alongside their teachers, peers, and support network,” she wrote.

“Now that we have every indication that the pandemic will soon be behind us, we can prepare to return fully to the physical spaces that best provide these conditions.”

Chicago Public Schools officials — who have been planning for a full return in the fall despite only about 22% of students showing up when all schools reopened this spring — welcomed the news.

“We are pleased that ISBE is guiding districts to provide five days a week of in-person instruction,” CPS spokesman James Gherardi said in a statement. “This is what the district has been working towards and there seems to be a consensus at all levels of government that opening schools full-time in the fall is a critical priority,” he said in a statement.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the country, said in a speech this month she supports the full reopening of schools in the fall. Leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union, the AFT’s local affiliate, have taken a more measured approach, arguing there’s work to be done this summer to build trust with families who have yet to return.

Some parents and school leaders questioned the move because the state still isn’t requiring COVID-19 vaccines for students as it does with other shots.

There’s also the issue of younger children still not being eligible for the vaccine. Those aged 12 and up can get inoculated in Illinois, but it’s unclear when younger kids will qualify.

Ayala said more guidance will be released in the coming weeks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not yet provided guidance for schools in the fall, but for now said it still recommends face masks in schools despite otherwise allowing fully vaccinated people to remove their coverings in most circumstances.

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