By: Brittany Flaherty Theis

Since March 17, 2020, school buildings in Illinois have been closed to student attendance. Now, school districts throughout the State are wrapping up their last month of the spring semester. Over the last several months, administrators, teachers, parents, and students rose to the many challenges COVID-19 created and most have experienced a myriad of feelings – dedication, pride, grief, frustration, support, and more – often times all in the same day. School districts adapted to meet the safety, nutritional, academic, and social/emotional needs of their students in new ways. Families juggled sickness, technology, working from home, essential workers working on site, job loss, childcare, academics, social needs, mental health, safety, and more. Many within our communities are shell-shocked and fearful of the unknowns for the 2020-2021 school year.

Although school districts are beginning to plan for the 2020-2021 school year, very few formal decisions have been made at this point as the impacts of COVID-19 and relevant State laws and regulations continue to evolve. Communication regarding the plans developed to address safety, sanitation, academics, transportation, and more will be critical. Learning from home is very likely going to be at least part of the plan for school districts during the 2020-2021 school year – for some or all of a school district’s students. For example, learning from home could be part of a transition back to in-person attendance, used for students who become sick or have family members who are sick, or for those students or teachers who are medically vulnerable.

ISBE’s Remote Learning Recommendations during COVID-19

On March 13, 2020, Executive Order 2020-05 closed school buildings for student attendance through March 30, 2020. These initial closure days could be counted as “Act of God Days,” which means that although they are not considered pupil attendance days, they do not need to be made up. School districts were encouraged to provide continuity of education during the Act of God Days through whatever means possible.

The closure of school buildings for in-person instruction was later formally extended:

  • On March 20, the closure was extended through April 7, 2020 by Executive Order 2020-10;
  • On April 1, the closure was extended through April 30, 2020 by Executive Order 2020-18, and
  • On April 30, the closure was extended through May 29, 2020 (effectively through the end of the 2019-2020 school year) by Executive Order 2020-33.

On March 27, 2020, Executive Order 2020-15 authorized “Remote Learning Days” to be used and school districts were instructed to create remote learning plans. These plans were unlike anything districts needed before this time. Executive Order 2020-15 authorized the Illinois State Board of Education (“ISBE”) to implement rules for remote learning. ISBE adopted an emergency rule requiring school districts to implement either an e-learning program under Section 10-20.56 of the School Code or a Remote Learning Day Plan. The emergency rule required the Remote Learning Day Plan to address: accessibility of remote instruction to all students; State learning standards, when applicable; means for students to confer with an educator; unique needs of students in special populations; and transitions from remote learning to on-site learning when allowed. School districts could use Remote Learning Planning days to prepare these plans. Pursuant to ISBE’s emergency rules, both Remote Learning Days and Remote Learning Planning Days are deemed pupil attendance days for calculation of the length of a school term.

Also on March 27, 2020, ISBE released a final draft of its “Remote Learning Recommendations During COVID-19 Emergency” (the “Recommendations”). The 62-page document provided overarching recommendations, as well as specific instruction and grading recommendations for categories of grade levels and subgroups of the student population. Administrators and educators developed plans intended to provide consistency, garner engagement and communication, and maintain or enhance academic gains, all while considering the home and family context and resources of their students. Planning decisions needed to address both the content and delivery method of lessons. Many did so with the following table from the Recommendations as a guide for establishing plans and expectations:

At the classroom level, these plans evolved as educators learned what worked well for their students and what did not. For example, real-time video lessons might work very well for students with adequate internet connection and technology access and skills who have the maturity to focus for lengths of time remotely. The same approach likely would not work for young students who need substantial assistance participating remotely, students without adequate technology or internet, or those who were too distracted by seeing classmates they missed. In those circumstances, educators likely reserved real-time activities for social-emotional development or check-ins. Throughout these unprecedented challenges, the format and content of educational plans evolved, but one constant remained the same throughout Illinois: school districts rose to the challenge to provide continuity of education to students without harm to students’ grades. And they did so with the health and well-being of their communities at the forefront.

Lessons Learned from Remote Learning during Spring 2020

Educators, service providers, and communities came together rapidly to provide students throughout the State with the opportunity to participate in remote learning. These opportunities developed quickly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, administrators, teachers, and service providers are discussing what worked well for the families in their communities, what improvements can be made, what resources are needed, and what circumstances might change if remote learning is needed during the 2020-2021 school year. Still, these plans remain a stark contrast to the E-learning day plans school districts were beginning to prepare for use during an occasional emergency school closure, which will be discussed in the next guidance document.

We encourage those readers with questions or comments regarding the decisions made by the school district in their community to reach out through the channels established by their district for doing so. For example, many districts have distributed surveys for feedback regarding the remote learning experience. For school boards, administrators, and educators planning for the 2020-2021 school year, the attorneys at Whitt Law are available to answer your questions. For questions regarding this guidance document and remote learning versus e-learning as those terms developed in Illinois in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, please contact Senior Attorney Brittany Flaherty Theis.

Whitt Law’s attorneys are available to advise school districts during these unprecedented challenges. Please feel free to contact them at any time and continue to follow our Planning for the Future Series.