By: Brittany Flaherty Theis

Remote learning is different than the “E-learning” programs being piloted and planned throughout Illinois prior to COVID-19. Three school districts piloted E-learning prior to COVID-19. Their plans included: the creation of lesson plans; teacher, student, and parent education and practice; preparation of technology and materials; and the development of protocol for communication with students and parents. School districts that planned to use E-learning days prior to COVID-19, and those that built E-learning days into their calendars for the 2020-2021 school year should prepare to educate their stakeholders regarding the differences between the two terms, especially given the months-long experience families and educators just had while buildings were closed. In this News & Knowledge post, Whitt Law will describe the history and requirements of E-learning in Illinois.

The (Short) History of E-Learning in Illinois

In 2015, the School Code was amended to allow school districts to offer e-learning in lieu of using one or more of the five emergency days required to be included in school calendars. At that time, e-learning was only opened to participation by three school districts as part of a pilot program. The school districts selected by the State Superintendent were Gurnee School District No. 56, Community High School District No. 94, and Leyden High School District No. 212. Formally, the pilot took place from 2015 to 2018. You can read more about their experiences here.

At that time, compared to the months-long remote learning experience Illinois is wrapping up, e-learning was to be used no more than five school days per year. Such days would count as attendance days without the need to use emergency days at the end of the school year. Each of the three pilot districts adopted programs that met the needs of all their students, including students in special education and English Learner programs. E-learning on non-attendance days was designed to consist of five clock hours of instruction or work for each student. The districts participating in the pilot programs provided staff and students with training for e-learning day participation. Students were trained on how to log in to access lessons, sign in for attendance, and complete their assignments. Districts incorporated plans for providing notice and technical means for participation.

The three pilot districts were required to submit reports to their respective regional office of education after each e-learning day and at the end of the three-year pilot program. The reports addressed the successes and challenges, as well as a comparison of attendance for teachers and students in the three days prior to the e-learning day to that of teachers and students on the e-learning day.

In June 2019, the General Assembly expanded the opportunity to participate in e-learning beyond the three pilot districts. Pursuant to the 2019 legislation, school board wishing to implement an e-learning program could do so by adopting a resolution after holding a public hearing. All e-learning programs needed to be research-based; provide at least 5 clock hours of instruction or school work; provide non-electronic materials to students or teachers who do not have access to the required technology; and provide effective notice to students and parents or guardians of the use of particular days for e-learning, among other requirements in Section 10-20.56 of the School Code. E-learning programs needed to be verified by the regional office of education or intermediate service center for the school district. Many school districts throughout the State began researching and planning during the 2019-2020 school year.

That brings us to winter 2020. Very few school districts had formal board-approved plans, public hearings, and verification from a regional office of education. Any plans that were drafted were intended to address up to five school days of instruction for remote education. Yet, all at once, school districts throughout the State needed to close their buildings for months. They needed to respond and they needed to do so quickly, with significant safety, technological, and logistical challenges.

State-level directives and emergency rules addressed the School Code requirements applicable to e-learning. School districts that had e-learning programs approved or drafted were granted additional flexibility in response to COVID-19. Specifically, Executive Order 2020-05  waived the requirement that a public hearing be held prior to adoption of an e-learning program. Regional offices of education were directed not to deny e-learning plans based solely on the requirement to provide five clock hours of instruction or schoolwork so long as the plan provided substantial learning opportunities. Executive Order 2020-05 also expanded the number of days e-learning could be used beyond the maximum of five emergency days in an approved school calendar.

Districts with e-learning programs already drafted or approved likely found their programs to be a helpful springboard in responding to the closure of school buildings for student instruction. Still, the need to educate entire student populations during a global pandemic was far beyond what any of these programs were initially designed to accomplish. The length of the closure, additional safety, academic, nutritional, and emotional needs of the entire community, and the many unknowns and urgencies related to COVID-19 required countless hours of advocacy, preparation, and support from school district staff, parents, and community members, as well as a vast array of resources. To read more about the development of remote learning in Illinois, please read “Remote Learning – What Just Happened?”

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Why does this matter?

Remote instruction, in some form, will likely be used during the 2020-2021 school year. For example, remote instruction could be used for entire student populations if buildings remain closed, or for block scheduling, shortened in-person days, extended absences when buildings are re-opened. Although school districts have the summer to digest lessons learned from the spring semester, there are still many unknowns for the 2020-2021 school year – primarily related to State-level directives and flexibility. These unknowns require administrators and school boards to consider many contingencies. As decisions are made for the 2020-2021 school year, communication with parents and students regarding plans and expectations will be extremely important.

Whitt Law LLC will continue to monitor administrative and legislative actions related to COVID-19, such as last week’s joint guidance from ISBE and IDPH, to assist school districts making these challenging decisions. Please contact Whitt Law Senior Attorney Brittany Flaherty Theis with questions regarding the evolution of e-learning programs and remote learning plans in Illinois.

Whitt Law’s attorneys are available to advise school districts during these unprecedented challenges. Please feel free to contact any of our attorneys directly with questions as you plan for the 2020-2021 school year and continue to follow our Planning for the Future Series.