School Reopening Guidelines ‘Too Vague,’ Education Groups Say

ILLINOIS — Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced on Tuesday plans to reopen Illinois schools and universities

ILLINOIS — Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced on Tuesday plans to reopen Illinois schools and universities this fall, but some teacher’s unions and higher education groups say the state guidelines don’t go far enough to keep educators and students safe.

According to the state, schools and universities will be responsible for developing and implementing their own reopening plans in line with general state guidelines, such as mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing, increased cleaning and disinfection, and at-school symptom screenings.

But the Chicago Teacher’s Union criticized the state’s guidelines as “too general and too vague to serve as a useful roadmap,” according to a statement from CTU President Jesse Sharkey. He says teachers will mostly have to figure out how to reopen schools themselves, and enforcing social distancing with younger students will be a challenge.

At the other end of the age range, higher education groups say the state guidelines leave out many of the most important considerations for a return to campus life. And, while the Illinois Emergency Protection Agency has pledged 2.5 million cloth face masks for K-12 schools, colleges and universities worry there won’t be enough for them.

“We are disappointed that the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) failed to implement the guidance provided by higher education faculty prior to releasing their guidelines. It is our members who will be teaching, guiding and serving the students in institutions around Illinois and their health and well-being is our top priority,” said Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery, University Professionals of Illinois President John Miller and Cook County College Teachers Union President Tony Johnston in a joint statement.

“The guidelines released today fail to provide clear guidance on the testing of students and employees prior to the reopening and do not consider the social aspects of student life on campus. To protect our Illinois higher education communities, we believe that these aspects must be addressed before the reopening.

“We are committed to working with IBHE to help revise the guidelines that take into account the voices of its students and staff. We want to make sure that every institution listens to its students and staff in developing plans to keep instruction going and the institutions thriving in the safest way possible,” the group said. “No institution’s plans will work if not developed in real partnership, and we stand ready to assist our higher education faculty and staff in every community college and every Illinois university.”

Despite the criticism, state officials said a one-size-fits-all approach to reopening schools and universities would be inadequate. Illinois Association of School Boards President Tom Bertrand praised the state’s flexible guidelines and highlighted the importance of in-person education.

“We know that during a national crisis, schools are often the institutions best positioned to address the academic and social-emotional needs of children and the basic needs of many families,” Bertrand said. “It is important to connect every child with caring, committed, competent educators — starting with the first day of school. The opportunity to return to school for in-person learning is an important step toward establishing that connection that is so important to the academic and social-emotional growth of our students.”

Pritzker agreed, saying, “The benefits of in-person instruction can’t be overstated.”

But educators say they remain anxious about returning to classrooms before they’re sure its safe.

“It is no secret that remote learning has been a challenge to teachers, parents and students, and our membership looks forward to returning to in-person instruction, but anxiety remains high over class sizes and the lack of school nurses and other health and safety resources,” said Illinois Education Association President Kathi Griffin in a separate joint statement with IFT’s Dan Montgomery. “We continue to be concerned about the deep disparities that exist in schools, especially in our Black and Brown communities, who still lack access to the internet and computers. We need to also consider our students who live in rural communities and their ability or lack-there-of to access information online. Parents, students and community members will feel safe returning to in-person instruction only when it is done safely by reducing class size and having a school nurse and necessary supplies in every school building.”

Successfully implementing the state’s guidelines will depend on whether teacher’s have a voice in the process, Griffin and Montgomery said.

The governor argues that “Illinois has done better than almost every other highly populated state” in controlling the coronavirus, and both new cases and fatalities are trending downward across the state, but federal officials say they are preparing for a possible second wave of infections in the fall. Nationally, cases are already rising again after falling steadily for weeks, largely driven by spikes in states that have flaunted CDC guidance on mask-wearing and social distancing.

While they are eager to return to their classrooms, many Illinois teachers appear worried the state’s guidelines might be too flexible if another spike hits Illinois just as schools and universities are reopening.

“In the event of a dramatic reversal or a second wave, we may have to return to remote instruction,” Pritzker acknowledged.

This article originally appeared on the Across Illinois Patch

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