Top Illinois schools official says fall could start with remote learning, students attending on different days

Offering a range of possibilities, the state superintendent for education said fall schooling will depend on public health conditions.

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State Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch interviews State Supt. of Education Carmen Ayala Thursday.

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Will students in Illinois go back to school in the fall?

The state’s top education official said Wednesday she doesn’t know.

But she said the 2020-21 academic year could start with remote learning, could feature students from different grades attending different days of the week or could involve “intermittent closings” if COVID-19 infections spike again.

State Supt. of Education Carmen Ayala in a Facebook live interview with State Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch this week laid out a number of possibilities for how school might look in the fall, including a return at “full force” — but said it will all depend on how controlled the pandemic is statewide in the coming months.

She specifically referred to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s 5-point plan for reopening the state that he revealed Tuesday, which said schools could potentially be a part of Phase 4, requiring the region in which a district is located to have seen a “continued decline” in virus infection rates and hospitalizations.

“How soon we start the school year, that will all depend on the phase we are in, come August, come September,” she told Welch, a democrat from Westchester. “We will have to see where we are with the coronavirus to determine how much we can gather, if it’s going to be 10, if it’s going to be 50, what that might look like.”

What’s certain, she said, is summer school will be held remotely. After that, she wants districts and schools to prepare for various possibilities and come up with a “plan A, plan B and plan C.”

There could be remote learning in the fall, or “we may see a combination where some children are allowed to come to school on certain days, or we take the upper grades and we are able to spread them out in the school building with social distancing norms,” she said.

Ayala said the state will provide guidance for the transition soon, but said the situation will vary by school and district, depending on enrollment and building capacity. She raised the possibility that students who need more assistance could attend while others stay home.

“It has to be different and unique for each school based upon the community context, the resources, the number of children, whether or not you have the space,” she said. “When you think about where are the children going to eat, are they going to eat in the classroom? Are we going to be able to bring one grade level one day of the week? Are we going to have our most at risk, neediest students for in-person opportunities and the others will stay remote? So there is a lot of options.”

One barrier that could affect Chicago Public Schools is overcrowding. Many schools already exceed the capacity their buildings were designed for “which will be much more challenging than other schools,” she told Welch.

CPS CEO Janice Jackson said previously that her district was developing a remote learning system in case the closures extend into next year. A CPS official said recently that schools were being asked to map out classrooms with desks six-feet apart.

Welch, who represents the western suburbs including Berwyn and Cicero, said he’s had a host of conversations with nervous parents, school board members and administrators.

“There’s a lot of questions, a lot of concern, a lot of anxiety,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “When we bring children back into school buildings and teachers and staff, we want them to make sure those folks are going to remain safe and healthy.”

Contributing: Ben Pope

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