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ISBE Guidance Aims to Relieve Confusion for Closing Schools

Coronavirus K-12 Education

Governor JB Pritzker’s recent order that all K-12 schools in Illinois be closed between March 17 and March 30 has left school districts scrambling to prepare to close school tomorrow. On Saturday, March 14, ISBE updated its Mandatory Statewide School Closure Guidance for Illinois Schools and School Districts to address the Governor’s order. ISBE also held six telephonic “town hall meetings” the following day with over 1,200 superintendents, regional superintendents, and other educational leaders across the state to address the closure. Yet many questions remain unanswered despite ISBE’s efforts over the weekend. Most significantly, ISBE’s designation of all days during the mandated closure as “Act of God” days has raised serious concerns. ISBE has not yet answered essential questions about that designation, such as confirming our position that teachers and other employees can be required to work during this period. [Update: As of March 17, 2020, the Governor’s office and ISBE, in a joint statement with other entities, confirmed that teachers and other employees can be expected to work.] Other questions, such as whether schools might at some later point be required to make up mandatory closure days, potential impacts if schools are required to conduct school beyond the budgeted year, and how special education issues should be addressed, also remain up in the air. This alert summarizes the key takeaways from ISBE’s communications over the weekend and highlights the areas of continued confusion for schools relating to the imminent closure.

According to ISBE, all days during the mandatory closure will be deemed Act of God days. Per Dr. Carmen Ayala, ISBE Superintendent, teachers and all other personnel on a school district’s payroll are expected to be paid “as normal” during this period. Although ISBE “strongly encourages” schools to provide instruction to students during Act of God Days through whatever means possible, its current position is that such days will not be treated as instructional days and any work completed should not count against a student’s grades. The stated reasoning for this position is to avoid inequity across the state in light of different resources available at different school districts. [Update: As of March 17, 2020, ISBE reported that schools may allow student work to count during the closure only to increase a student’s academic standing.] 

A number of questions remained unanswered by ISBE’s guidance relating to the designation of days during the mandatory closure as Act of God days. Specifically:

  • Can teachers and other employees be required to work during mandated Act of God days?
  • How should school districts pay hourly staff who had sporadic hours when school was in session? What about those receiving extra-curricular stipends?
  • Can employees be charged sick or personal days during the mandatory closure days if they do not work?
  • How does ISBE’s designation of mandated Act of God days comport with the School Code requirement that all emergency days be exhausted before Act of God days can be declared?

[Update: see our alert regarding the March 17 Executive Order, which addressed some of these questions.] With respect to the essential question of whether teachers and other employees can be required to work on Act of God days, ISBE repeatedly directed schools to work with their unions, stated that it intends to meet with IEA and IFT representatives imminently, and promised to share more information when it can. We are hopeful for more information today on this critical issue.