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The Question of the Hour: Will there be remote learning this fall?

Education K-12 Education

Yes, but not like last fall. On May 19, 2021, the Illinois State Board of Education adopted a Resolution Supporting In-Person Learning. The Resolution points to a definite shift to return the vast majority of students to learning in-person and leaves only limited exceptions for continued remote learning. While the Resolution itself is quite short, it opened a host of questions from the field such as those identified during our recent COVID-19 webinar. On May 24, 2021, ISBE issued Questions and Answers that begin to address some of the key issues raised by the resolution – such as confirming which students must be provided remote learning in the fall and under which School Code provisions school districts may provide remote learning to other students. Still to come from ISBE, however, is further clarification on the practical implications of these requirements, including the meaning of “remote learning” in this context. These developments will have significant impacts as districts plan for next school year.

As background, School Code Section 10-30 provides that when the Governor has declared a disaster due to a public health emergency, the State Superintendent of Education may declare a requirement to use remote learning days or blended remote learning days. At the start of the 2020-2021 school year, the Superintendent’s declaration required districts to offer remote learning to any student whose parents chose that option. The Superintendent also required that remote learning consist of 5 clock hours of instruction and recommended that at least 2.5 be synchronous. In March 2021, the Superintendent revised the requirement such that districts were only required to provide remote learning to students who are at increased risk of severe illness (including those with special health care needs) or who live with people at increased risk. Districts could choose to offer remote instruction to a broader group of students.  

Under the Resolution, when the Superintendent makes the new declaration, which will go into effect for the 2021-2022 school year, districts will be required to provide remote instruction to students who meet both of the following criteria:

  • ineligible for a COVID-19 vaccine; and
  • quarantining under current guidance from IDPH or the appropriate local public health department.

These will be the only students who qualify for remote learning under Section 10-30. Accordingly, remote learning under Section 10-30 would only be for students who are ineligible to be vaccinated (generally, those under 12 years old) and would only be provided during the quarantine period after close contact with an individual with COVID-19. At this time, no change to the 5 clock hour requirement has been indicated, and slides from a recent webinar suggest it will remain in place, but additional guidance on this point may be forthcoming.

The Resolution does reference several other School Code provisions that may be applicable and, according to the Q&A, give districts some flexibility to provide remote instruction more broadly.

  • The first provision is Section 10-29, which allows (but does not require) a school board to adopt a policy to create a remote education program. Once such a program has been established, a student can participate if the district and the person who enrolled the student agree that the program will best serve the student’s individual learning needs. A remote educational plan must be created for each participating student. The district must submit its policy as well as data on student participation in the program to ISBE.
  • The second provision is Section 10-19.05(k)(4), which states that participation in a blended learning program approved by the school district counts toward the required clock hours for attendance purposes. A blended learning program is not defined except that it is approved by the district and the course content, student evaluation, and instructional methods are supervised by a licensed educator. The placement of this provision in the School Code indicates that the intention is likely that a blended learning program would be available to high school students participating in some combination of in-person high school classes, college classes, work or internship experiences, independent study, or other opportunities supervised by a licensed educator. But districts seem to have flexibility in how a blended learning program is structured. We also anticipate additional guidance from ISBE on blended learning programs.

Districts interested in providing remote instruction to students more broadly than those who meet the narrow criteria set out in the Resolution must adopt a policy under Section 10-29 and/or a program pursuant to 10-19.05(k)(4).

For districts not operating remote learning programs under Section 10-29 or blended learning programs under 10-19.05(k)(4), students who are at increased risk of illness or have other medical needs would need to attend in person unless the student’s parent/guardian provided a doctor’s statement that the student was unable to attend school and required home instruction under Section 14-13.01. This section of the School Code, however, does not require full remote instruction, but rather requires at least 5 hours of instruction per week. The amount of instruction and delivery method can vary based on the student’s medical needs as well as the determination of the IEP team or 504 team, if applicable, as to the student’s learning needs. We do anticipate an increase in requests for home instruction and encourage districts to review their current procedures and prepare to meet these students’ needs.

While ISBE has begun to address the questions raised by the Resolution, critical questions remain regarding the requirements and flexibility that districts will have under the Superintendent’s declaration. For example, ISBE’s legal department has indicated that additional guidance will be issued to address certain concerns, such as the meaning of remote learning under the new Resolution, while other questions, such as how much flexibility a district may have to shape its remote learning program under Section 10-29, may be left up to individual district’s determinations in consultation with their legal counsel. Districts working to develop and confirm their plans for the upcoming school year should continue to consult with legal counsel, the local health department, and stakeholders on issues implicated by this Resolution and the 2021-2022 school year generally.