By: Brittany Flaherty Theis
The Illinois State Board of Education (“ISBE”) and the Illinois Department of Public Health (“IDPH”) recently released Part 3 – Transition Joint Guidance: Starting the 2020-21 School Year (“Part 3”). The guidance includes both recommendations and mandates regarding safety, sanitation, screening, instructional, staffing, and transportation matters, along with numerous other matters. Whitt Law is working with its clients to determine the best way to satisfy these requirements in consideration of the unique characteristics of each school district.
An overarching topic throughout Part 3 (and the last several months) is communication – communication with staff, students, families, local authorities, and community stakeholders. School districts thrown into remote learning last spring had to rapidly make decisions regarding how to provide their students with education remotely, as well as address mental health, nutrition, and safety concerns. They had to make plans, and then revise those plans again… and again…as federal and State mandates and resources changed and they gained experience with remote learning.
Yet again, school districts are facing tough decisions, many of which are likely to evolve as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve. School districts should be deliberate in planning what, when, and how they communicate with students and families. Those plans should be shared with teachers and staff for streamlining, consistency, and maximum effectiveness.
When communicating information to families, ISBE’s guidance suggests school districts:
- Communicate about how families can reinforce and explain safety protocols at home;
- Provide families with ample opportunities to ask questions; and
- To the greatest extent possible, communicate with families in their native languages.
ISBE and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) recommend posting signs and messages that “reinforce safety precautions and promote every day protective measures.” These signs and messages should be provided in multiple languages. It is further recommended by the CDC that schools broadcast regular announcements and share informational videos to educate and update students, families, teachers, and staff. The CDC and ISBE have both provided signs, public service announcements, and infographics, some of which can be found in the resource links below.
Decisions school districts make in the coming weeks should be guided by the needs, abilities, and resources of their students, families, district, teachers, and staff. ISBE suggested districts solicit information through surveys covering topics such as family changes in recent months, experiences with remote learning, transportation needs and abilities, and trauma history. Information solicited from teachers and staff should highlight their needs and concerns, as well as guide transition planning. Many school districts have already engaged in the process of soliciting this feedback.
The decisions districts faced responding to COVID-19 magnified the fact that equity and access concerns are intertwined in nearly all decisions educators make. Consider, for example, academic content, technology, internet, nutrition, housing, social/emotional resources, etc. At first glance, communicating with families might not appear to involve matters of equity. Upon deeper analysis, districts might find differences in access or use of social media platforms, email, and informal modes of distributing information. For example, do parents of young students that require assistance with remote learning have access to lessons with sufficient time to prepare if they work weekends or the second shift? Do parents that are not engaged in social media have means of learning about academic enhancements or extracurricular opportunities? Some school districts use their all-call system to send a recorded message indicating updates are available via email and on the district’s website. Other districts instructed teachers to email remote learning lesson plans earlier in the weekend to allow families more time to juggle conflicting obligations. Ensuring every family within a school district have full, timely access to the district’s plans for reopening during the 2020-2021 school year should be a priority. Many districts have already risen to that challenge. Has yours?
The attorneys at Whitt Law remain available to advise school districts throughout the State as they continue to serve their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are familiar with Part 3 and are committed to monitoring the ever-changing circumstances our clients face. Please contact Whitt Law Senior Attorney Brittany Flaherty Theis (email@example.com) with questions regarding this post on communicating with families, students, teachers, and staff.
- CDC Symptom Signs and Graphics – https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html
- CDC COVID-19 Videos – https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/communication/videos.html?Sort=Date%3A%3Adesc
- CDC Public Service Announcements – https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/communication/public-service-announcements.html
- CDC Social Media Toolkit – https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/communication/social-media-toolkit.html
- ISBE Collection of Resources, including its School and District Fall Reopening Toolkit, posters, and Social Media Graphics – https://www.isbe.net/Pages/covid19.aspx
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