Last week, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) released guidance for school districts on closing out the 2019-2020 school year and handling 2020 summer school. The guidance gives a first look at what reopening schools may look like when it is safe to do so. This topic, along with a discussion of how COVID-19 has affected your student, will be part of a joint one-hour Virtual Town Hall hosted by Illinois PTA and Advance Illinois on Wednesday, May 27 at 3:00pm. Free pre-registration is required.

The ISBE report spells out how school districts should wrap up the current year and what activities should be done over the summer to prepare for a potential opening of schools in the fall, following the phased guidelines set out in Governor JB Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan.

Finishing 2019-2020

In closing out the 2019-2020 school year, districts will need to finish their planned curriculum activities, but also need to take some additional actions necessitated by the pandemic, including:

  • Making every effort to locate and check in with every student to ensure student wellness and to alert school social workers if the family is experiencing grief or loss or is in need of physical or mental health services.
  • Dealing with student grading, with a recommendation that no student’s grade is below the grade they had on March 17, 2020. Students should be given the opportunity to improve their grades and complete or pass the courses they were taking this year.
  • Creating individualized plans for students who receive an incomplete, with a process for the student to finish the course that could include remote summer learning, an early start to the new school year, extended days at the start of the new school year, or Saturday school in districts that offer it.
  • Minimizing student learning loss over the summer, possibly including virtual transition meetings between a student’s current teacher and next year’s teacher, looping teachers (where the teacher advances a grade level with the students), or providing summer learning packets.
  • Creating a plan for students and teachers to pick up any personal belongings that may have been left when schools closed.

Dealing with Trauma

ISBE’s guidance also recognizes that the closure of schools and the effects of the pandemic are likely to have been traumatic for many students and families, and that a return to school has the potential for additional trauma. Students may be grieving the loss of a family member to COVID-19, but even those who haven’t experienced the death of a relative may still have been traumatized. The sudden closure of schools meant that many hallmark school events—from class trips, spring sports, and plays to dances, prom, and graduation—have been lost. The return to school may also be traumatic, from simply being in close proximity to a large number of people to dealing with the deaths of school personnel such as a teacher, cafeteria worker, or janitor.

In recognizing the traumatic events that may affect students, ISBE is recommending that school districts:

  • Provide support for staff, students, parents, and the community from a social-emotional, safety, and basic needs perspective in addition to focusing on academics.
  • Consider increasing counselling services for the school community
  • Revisit the district’s social-emotional learning (SEL) standards, policies, and curriculum to ensure that student needs are being met.

Over the Summer

ISBE recommends, in alignment with the governor’s plan, that summer school sessions be conducted virtually. ISBE also recommends that districts consider using Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds for education supports such as:

  • Providing teachers with additional planning and collaboration time so that each student’s needs are met.
  • Being mindful of potential trauma that students may be dealing with and how it hinders student learning, which may require teachers to provide more frequent breaks in teaching and gradually build up to a “normal” teaching schedule.
  • Distributing devices and ensuring plans are in place for meeting every student’s technology needs for the 2020-2021 school year.

Schools should also be planning on how to continue to provide meals over the summer for students on free and reduced lunch plans, noting that some schools may be required to provide such meals at least during the duration of their summer programs.

ISBE also recommends that districts consider providing professional development for teachers focused on anxiety, depression, trauma, fear, public health crisis, fear of being together, fear of being apart, and students with adverse childhood experiences. This approach recognizes that teachers and staff will be serving as a social-emotional safety net for students when they return.

Teachers may also need professional development days devoted to mental health and counseling plans, preparation, and training, as they may be personally dealing with unemployment, domestic abuse, or community concerns at home.

Finally, ISBE recommends districts use the summer to plan on how they will assess where students are in their learning once they return to school, noting that there will need to be at least a few weeks between the return and starting any assessments. These assessments should be used to adjust curriculum, inform instruction, and address learning loss, not for grade level or course placement. In addition, students with Individual Education Programs (IEPs) or 504 Plans, English Learners (ELs), and students who may need additional support may also need their individual plans specifically adjusted to their needs in making the transition back to school in addition to continuing their education.