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Key Takeaways from Part One of ISBE’s Plan for Transitioning to In-Person Instruction in Illinois

Coronavirus K-12 Education

On May 15, 2020, ISBE issued the first part of its recommendations for transitioning to in-person instruction, Considerations for Closing the 2019-20 School Year & Summer 2020: Part 1 – Transition Plan. The plan contains a number of prescriptive recommendations for closing out the current school year and entering summer. Although many of the transition considerations in the plan may be best practice and in line with what many school districts are doing already, the plan contains minimal discussion of the many practical hurdles that may prevent implementation of the suggestions, such as labor and employment and budgetary considerations facing schools. School districts and schools should become familiar with the plan and work with stakeholders, including legal counsel, to determine what is feasible to implement.

The plan is composed of recommendations from ISBE’s Transition Plan Advisory Workgroup. The group includes social workers, administrators, multilingual educators, special education instructors, and general education teachers. The following are some of the key recommendations in Part One of the plan:

  • Student Attendance. The plan explains that attendance should be submitted to ISBE, as usual, via the Student Information System by August 14, 2020. The plan describes as the preferred method of collecting attendance “a one-to-one daily connection between the teacher and the student,” but recognizes that this may not always be feasible. Alternatives encouraged include video conference “check-ins,” wellness checks, phone calls, text messages, or email communications coupled with a question on student engagement/participation in lessons, and packet collections by school personnel. The plan notes that these check ins need not occur every day; attendance may be recorded for any time period covered by a completed work packet or questions on student engagement/participation raised during a check in.

The plan recommends, as ISBE has previously, that schools follow normal procedures of referring students to regional truancy officers; however, we recommend that you contact your legal counsel before engaging in such practices because referring a student to the truancy officer during normal times is a significant action and, given the obstacles families are facing now, doing so before trying other available alternatives could create the very types of “adverse impacts” on students that the plan aims to avoid.

  • Wellness Checks. The plan states that school districts “are encouraged to make every effort to locate and check in with all students and families to the beset of their ability.” It states further: “The advisory group strongly recommends during this transitional and remote learning time that a wellness check be conducted to every degree possible for all children, especially those most at risk for disengagement.” Despite the permissive language of those recommendations, the plan goes on to state that teachers “need to communicate immediately with social workers and counselors if a family is experiencing grief/loss” and that support staff personnel should “connect that family with appropriate resources” if needed. ISBE does not address how these apparent mandates will funded or effectuated, particularly when considering the number of students who are currently disengaged with remote learning and pressures on relevant staff members’ time.
  • Incomplete Grades and Individualized Plans to Address Them. The plan echoes earlier guidance from ISBE saying student grades should not be lowered from where they were as of March 17, 2020. With respect to incomplete grades, the plan states that students who were passing a class before March 17, 2020 and who continue to “engage with their teacher and school,” presumably in any fashion, “should not be given an Incomplete unless there are unique circumstances specific to the best interest of the student.” Only students who were not earning a passing grade and who are not engaging in remote learning should be considered for an incomplete grade. The plan notably encourages districts to develop a policy around how incomplete grades will be made up and to communicate that policy to parents, students, and teachers. The plan says teachers should provide an individualized plan for any student receiving an incomplete grade identifying the essential skills that the student has not demonstrated and indicating how those essential skills can be demonstrated. ISBE warns that schools should not simply list missing assignments; instead, the plan should include the key components of the course and identify those that the student has not yet demonstrated satisfactorily.

Again, these directives are not radical departures from best practices and may be already be in place in schools across the state, but they are markedly different from those provided in earlier ISBE guidance and there is no discussion of the change in requirements or tone. This additional workload for teachers that the recommendations would require also may prove challenging, especially if remote learning continues.

  • Minimizing Learning Loss. The plan suggests that schools consider holding “virtual transition meetings” between students’ current teachers and their teachers for next school year and consider “looping” teachers for the summer school and/or 2020-2021 school year, when possible. Again, ISBE does not address labor or employment practicalities that may make such efforts difficult.  
  • Student Belongings. The plan says each district should develop a process by which student belongings can be returned before next school year, preferably without allowing student entry into buildings. If entry into buildings is allowed, ISBE “recommends” that school districts should create schedules to limit the number of individuals coming to gather belongings at a time, require face coverings be work in buildings at all time, requiring students to enter buildings alone unless they need one-on-one assistance, making wipe and hand sanitizer available at entrances and exits and within buildings, and not allowing individuals in buildings if they are ill. Although not addressed in the ISBE plan, we know many school districts are using staff to clean out lockers. This process obviously allows for greater social distancing than the recommendations from ISBE, in addition to other advantages. Administrators should have a plan for addressing contraband located in lockers if staff complete the cleanouts, as some state law and constitutional limitations should be respected.
  • Social Emotional Supports. ISBE warns districts that their Social Emotional Standards board policies may need to be revisited, publicized, communicated, and broadly applied to address trauma caused by the shift to remote learning. The plan also recommends “virtual activities” for children in elementary school grades.
  • Summer School. The plan confirms ISBE’s earlier statements that summer school should be conducted remotely this year. ISBE recommends that educators be provided additional planning time and collaboration time to address student needs, but without any discussion of how such practices may impact the provision of summer school services by employees.
  • Summer Meals. The plan reminds schools that they may be required to provide free meals to students over the summer, and recommends that schools do so, even if not required, if warranted based on the needs of their communities.
  • Professional Development. The plan includes a number of professional development and training supports that schools should consider providing to teachers “using the summer months.” Because most teachers are not required to work during the summer, meeting such a recommendation may prove challenging both logistically and financially. Again, although the recommendations regarding professional development for both teachers and support/personnel in the plan may be best practices and are likely being implemented by many school districts already, the prescriptive nature of the recommendations without reference to the practical limitations on schools may leave school districts with many questions.
  • Preparations for Buildings and Safety. The plan recommends that schools begin considering now how to prepare their buildings for the “new normal” of social distanced education that is likely to come in the fall. ISBE suggests that schools consider school cleaning schedules/practices and procure necessary supplies, some in much greater quantities than schools may be used to buying, such as hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, and cleaners. ISBE indicated that it will provide more guidance in Part Two of the Transition Plan. You can also learn more about these considerations during the next installment of our Franczek Webinar Symposium, Extreme School Makeover: Space Planning, Deep Cleaning, and Safety, Oh My!, which will be held on Thursday, May 20, 2020, and will include both Franczek P.C. attorneys and Steve Wright from DLA Architects, Ltd
  • Early School Year. The plan refers to beginning the 2020-2021 school year earlier than normal—such as in August, rather than after Labor Day—to maximize the amount of in-person instruction time possible before an expected resurgence of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the fall. Of course, school districts should consider fiscal and labor bargaining implications before implementing any such changes to the calendar for the school year.

For more information on the ISBE recommendations, assistance with the policy reviews ISBE suggests or locker cleanouts by staff, or to discuss budgetary and labor limitations that may impact the ability to implement the plan’s recommendations, contact the authors of this post or any other Franczek attorney.