On May 27th, Illinois PTA and Advance Illinois cohosted a Town Hall discussion on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected education, students, and families and what needs and concerns there may be when students return to school. The result was a lively discussion with dozens of PTA members from across the state. You can find the PowerPoint slides here, and there is a brief follow-up survey you can fill out as well.

The Town Hall came about from conversations between Illinois PTA and Advance Illinois concerning how the pandemic had affected education and trying to sketch out what the needs of students, families, teachers, and schools might be when they return to face-to-face instruction. The plans for reopening from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Governor Pritzker’s office, and the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) have tended to look at returning from a top-down perspective of public health targets. Both Illinois PTA and Advance Illinois wanted to make sure that families’ voices were included in the discussion as well, and this Town Hall was a first step towards that.

Data on the Pandemic

The discussion began with some background information on how the pandemic has affected education in Illinois and what might be learned from other disasters that have closed schools. Some of the key points were:

  • While school calendars vary from district to district, students in Illinois have had roughly one-third of their school year disrupted by the pandemic.
  • Districts and teachers had little time to plan for remote learning, and two-thirds of the districts lacked the resources needed for quality online learning in March.
  • Earlier research about online learning found that even when planned in advance under normal circumstances, low-income students and English Language Learners are often left behind by distance learning.
  • About 21% of Illinois children do not have high-speed internet access, many of them in rural downstate locations.
  • One-third of children below the federal poverty line do not have access to a laptop or computer. The same proportion lack access to high-speed internet.
  • Online learning can make racial inequities in education worse, as approximately 30% of black and 27% Latinx students do not have high-speed internet access compared to 16% of their white peers.
  • From a national survey of teachers and administrators, students have gone from six hours per day of instruction before school closures to about three hours per day. For students in the highest-poverty schools, that figure drops to two hours per day.
  • You may have heard of the “summer slide,” the student learning loss over the summer. With schools closing in mid-March, there may be a greater “COVID slide” that could potentially put students behind where they were at the start of the year. This slide is also likely to disproportionately affect low-income students and students of color, widening achievement gaps.
  • Childhood trauma is known to affect student learning and carry on to issues in adulthood. The effects of the pandemic—death of a family member, economic hardship, food insecurity, witnessing or being a victim of abuse or neglect, and simply general stress—are all potential sources of trauma in children, and schools will need to be prepared to address the mental health and social-emotional needs of children when they return to school.
  • Over half of Illinois’s 852 school districts are below 70% of adequate funding, and the economic crisis associated with the pandemic will likely reduce schools’ funding from both local taxes and the state. Consequently, schools will need to meet growing needs with fewer resources.
  • Other disasters that have closed schools, such as Hurricane Katrina, the 2009 Australian bushfires, the Joplin tornado, and the 2015 Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone can provide some useful information, but in all of those cases, there were schools and communities outside the affected areas to help and to take in students. Those experiences, however, do point to the critical need to support students’ mental health and social-emotional needs when they return, along with training for teachers in identifying anxiety and depression as well as supporting their mental health needs as well.

A Path Forward

Illinois PTA and Advance Illinois had sketched out a broad outline of what a comprehensive, statewide recovery plan to address the significant emotional and academic effects of the pandemic might look like. The plan needs to put children and their needs first and maintain a focus on equity, because while the pandemic has been experienced everywhere in the state, the effects have not been felt equally across the state. The five key needs identified are:

  1. Social, emotional, and mental health supports for students, families, and educators
  2. More planning time, support, and training to help educators address the unprecedented social-emotional and academic needs of students
  3. Infrastructure, training, and other supports to close the digital divide, including both access to high-speed internet and devices
  4. Increased school time to address both the social-emotional needs and to regain lost academic progress
  5. Detailed plans to support the needs of students on the margins—students from low-income households, students with disabilities, students learning English, students with IEPs or 504 plans, students who are homeless, in foster care, or in the juvenile justice system

Discussions with Parents

The remainder of the Town Hall was given over to small group breakout discussions among everyone on the Zoom event. The discussions were wide-ranging for most groups, covering how the end of this school year has gone in their homes to looking ahead at what returning to school might mean. Some common points from the discussions were:

  • The move to online learning has affected children differently, even in the same home. Some have easily and readily adapted to online classes, while their siblings have struggled to remain engaged and to get their work done.
  • Even students in homes that haven’t experienced job losses or other hardships during the pandemic are having mental health issues, from missing face-to-face contact with their friends to anxiety and depression.
  • Many parents felt that their children were not learning as much online as they did in the classroom. Some struggled to learn how to access their child’s assignments through online portals like Google Classroom.
  • Parents also wanted more feedback from teachers on how their child was doing on assignments and how they could provide more support in the areas where there child was struggling.
  • Parents of students with special needs felt their child had been left behind with the shift to online learning.
  • Some parents were concerned about whether it would be safe to return to school in the fall.
  • Several parents felt that even if their child was only able to attend in-person classes two days per week or only in the mornings due to the need to limit the number of students in the school building at any one time, it would make a significant difference in their child’s learning compared to online classes.
  • It was not all bad news. Parents liked schools that laid out the week’s assignments ahead of time, as it helped them to provide structure to their child’s day. They also appreciated the personal touches from teachers, including things like a personal phone call to just their child or a personal note in the mail.

Some participants asked how they can encourage legislators to keep our children front and center as our schools and communities begin to reopen. If you haven’t already, sign up for the Illinois PTA Take Action Network. Illinois PTA uses the network to alert members to pending legislation, and the e-mails provide you with a link to a pre-written, but editable, letter to send to your legislators in a matter of minutes.

This online Town Hall was a new adventure for both Illinois PTA and Advance Illinois, and participants appreciated the opportunity to make their voices heard and looked forward to doing it again sometime in the future. Be sure to check out the detailed information in the PowerPoint and fill out the brief survey by June 8th.