SPRINGFIELD — State education officials said Wednesday they'll have recommendations for schools resuming operations for the 2020-2021 school year by the end of this month and possibly as soon as Thursday.
The state plans to urge schools to resume face-to-face learning as much as possible which will mean that both faculty and students will be required to use face masks.
State officials have been working for weeks to develop guidelines for schools to reopen in the fall after the coronavirus pandemic forced an end to classroom instruction this spring. Schools provided remote instruction to students to complete the school year although educators agreed that in-person instruction is far preferable.
At a meeting of the Illinois State Board of Education Wednesday, Brenda Dixon, chief of research and development for ISBE, said the state "will encourage districts to provide in-district learning in the fall to the greatest extent possible."
But state Superintendent Carmen Ayala noted that with 852 school districts in the state, one set of guidelines won't work for everyone.
"We needed to be able to provide the flexibility for the districts because community A in southern Illinois is not the same as community B in suburban Illinois, or in urban Illinois," Ayala said. "As much as we have tried to provide some (uniformity) it still will remain the districts' ability, given their community context, to make the best reopening plan to meet the needs of the community and children they serve."
Ayala said once the guidelines are issued, the state will conduct webinars and provide other means to help districts implement their plans.
Dixon said the guidelines will be built around the health and safety recommendations of the Illinois Department of Public Health. They will also reflect guidelines that will be in place for the state assuming the state has entered Phase 4 of Gov. J.B. Pritzker's Restore Illinois plan when schools open later this summer.
The guidelines will mean the use of face coverings for staff and students, prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people and maintaining social distancing. Dixon said it will include simple screenings of people as they enter school buildings such as temperature checks and it will require an increase in building cleanings.
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The recommendations are the product of weeks of work from dozens of people involved in various aspects of education.
Board member David Lett, a former school superintendent, said he has concerns about the face covering requirement. He said students may have trouble understanding a teacher speaking through a face covering. He also said school officials have to be prepared for students who simply refuse to wear a mask.
Ayala responded that shields are also an acceptable face covering which might help with communication issues. She also said she recognized that students refusing to wear masks is a potential problem and that more discussion is needed on that.
Lett said he's also heard concerns about social distancing and how transportation will be handled.
Ayala said social distancing is encouraged as much as possible, but acknowledged that it may not be possible in all situations. She said that since Phase 4 should be in effect when school starts and it allows for gatherings of up to 50 people, school buses should be allowed to operate.
"But again, there is a lot of planning and care to be taken in terms of making sure students are wearing masks and as much as possible the separation of students so they are not all packed in," she said.
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