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Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Gubernatorial Disaster Proclamation, and subsequent Executive Orders, much of the focus for school districts has been on effective remote learning and providing other necessary support services to students. However, on May 5, 2020, Governor Pritzker released “Restore Illinois,” a five-phased plan that will reopen the state, guided by health metrics and with distinct business, education, and recreation activities characterizing each phase. On May 19, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance for schools as they begin to consider procedures for reopening to students and staff.

As of the date of this publication, all Illinois health regions as defined in the Restore Illinois plan are now in Phase III. While in-person learning is limited in Phase III, it is expanded in Phase IV and therefore, school districts need to be preparing for the return of in-person learning as the state progresses towards Phase IV. This post is intended to provide some practical guidance for reopening schools to in-person learning during Phase IV.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Guidance

The federal CDC has prepared significant guidance documents for communities, schools, and workplaces. The schools and child care resources are available here. The most recent document released is a “decision tree” with questions that schools should consider before reopening.  Two of the most significant questions gauge the school’s readiness “to protect children and employees at higher risk for severe illness” and “to screen students and employees upon arrival for symptoms and history of exposure.” These questions are also pertinent as school districts have employees returning to the workplace to perform critical summer work before students might return in the fall.

The first question on the CDC’s decision tree asks if reopening will be consistent with state and local orders. School districts must look to guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health (in conjunction with the Illinois State Board of Education), as well as their county health department.  In many cases, the guidance will be the same. However, state and local authorities may require more stringent procedures and should follow or elaborate upon the Governor’s executive orders.

Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) Guidance

Until recently, the IDPH had provided only limited guidance along with a checklist regarding school operation during the COVID-19 pandemic which can be found here. However, on June 4, 2020, the IDPH in conjunction with ISBE released a more detailed document regarding transitioning to in-person summer instruction and other activities which can be found here. This document provides detailed guidance for resuming various in-person learning activities including, but not limited to, the following permissible Phase III activities:

  • Behind-the-Wheel Instruction — Students may participate in behind-the-wheel instruction. Vehicles must be cleaned and sanitized between each use and only two students and one instructor may be in a vehicle at a time.
  • Child Find — Districts may conduct activities pertaining to the legal requirement that schools find all children who have disabilities and who may be entitled to special education services.
  • Early Childhood, Special Education, and English Learner Screenings — Schools and districts may conduct in-person early childhood, special education, and English Learner screenings.
  • Extended School Year — Districts may offer extended school year services, as appropriate, to students whose Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) require the service.
  • Host Summer Camps and Other Programs — Schools and districts may allow buildings to be used for summer camps and other programs sponsored by third parties. Playgrounds may not be used.
  • Individualized Education Program Meetings — Districts may conduct IEP meetings for families who have been unable to engage in virtual IEP meetings. These meetings should still be held virtually, to the greatest extent possible.
  • Mediation and Due Process Hearings — Mediations and due process hearings may take place in person. However, it is recommended that mediation and due process hearings still be conducted virtually, if all parties agree to do so.
  • School Registration — Staff may provide in-person registration for students and families, when necessary. Schools and districts should also provide remote registration opportunities.
  • Special Education Evaluations — Districts may conduct evaluations that could not be completed virtually. Evaluations should still be held virtually, to the greatest extent possible.
  • Staff Meetings and Professional Development — Districts may convene staff members for any appropriate training, planning, and professional development purposes.
  • Summer Meals Distribution — ISBE highly encourages school districts to evaluate the needs of their students and community as they transition into the different phases of opening the state and continue to provide meals through the summer to meet the needs of their communities. The required Summer Food Service trainings can be conducted virtually. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently extended several key flexibilities through Aug. 31, 2020, to allow school districts to continue to provide non-congregate meals to meet the needs of their communities. Further, Public Act 096-0734 requires every public school in which at least 50 percent of the students were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches and has a summer school program must provide a summer breakfast and/or lunch to the students in the summer school and children in that community.
  • Summer School — Schools and districts may conduct in-person summer school. Special populations, which may include students with IEPs, English Learners, and students who received incompletes during remote instruction, should receive priority consideration for services.
  • Testing Centers — Schools may serve as testing sites for students.

In addition to this guidance, it may be prudent for schools to develop and  implement some or all of the following practical considerations for reopening schools during Phase IV of the “Restore Illinois” Plan.

  1. Develop detailed written plans and procedures in conjunction with the county health department for addressing screening for, as well as responding to, suspected and actual cases of COVID-19 within the school district;
  2. Develop a communications plan to be shared with parents and staff which will explain the plans and procedures to screen for, as well as respond to, suspected and actual cases of COVID-19 within the school district;
  3. Develop detailed written plans and procedures for screening students and staff that may become ill at school. These plans and procedures may require additional individuals other than the school nurse to participate;
  4. Develop detailed written plans and procedures for educating all students and staff regarding maintaining hygienic conditions within the school buildings including; behavior training, sanitation stations, ensuring available supplies (hand sanitizer, soap, paper towels, etc.), increased cleaning and disinfection of frequently touched surfaces, scheduling hygiene breaks throughout the day, etc.;
  5. Develop detailed written plans and procedures for safely isolating within the school building students and staff that become ill, as well as safely transporting these ill students and staff from the school building.

Local Guidance 

Districts must work with their local authorities as well, in particular, the regional office of education and the county health department.  COVID-19 cases are not uniform throughout the state, and certain areas may be facing different rates of transmission or medical interventions than others.  For example, although ISBE and IDPH issued guidance allowing for limited in-person graduation ceremonies, the DuPage County Health Department and DuPage Regional Office of Education recommended against that for local districts, citing the level of new cases and hospitalizations in DuPage County. However, other counties with low rates of infection may not have faced the same problems.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to develop, school districts should work with legal counsel to determine the best way to prepare for reopening schools to employees, parents, and students during Phases III and IV of the “Restore Illinois” Plan. Districts will need to balance the obligations of state and federal laws on education with the changing operational paradigm of the school district and the health of everyone involved.

The attorneys at Whitt Law LLC are well-versed in the myriad of issues surrounding preparing for reopening schools during Phase IV of the “Restore Illinois” Plan and are actively monitoring State action in response to COVID-19. Please contact Whitt Law Partner James R. Dougherty or Senior Attorney Brian R. Bare if you have questions regarding your preparation.