The Illinois State Board of Education voted to adopt a resolution requiring schools to resume in-person learning for the fall school year, with few exceptions.
The resolution, which was opposed by many parents who offered public comment ahead of the board's Wednesday vote, was passed unanimously.
The daily in-person learning requirement is "subject to favorable public health conditions" and would begin at the start of the 2021-22 school year, under the guidelines.
The resolution supports a declaration made by State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala, a spokesperson for ISBE said in a statement. It includes one exception to in-person learning, however, stating that remote learning "would still be required for students who are both not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine and also under a quarantine order." It also states that students who don't meet that criteria "may be eligible for home/hospital instruction."
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"This plan begins to transition us toward a future in which we are no longer under a gubernatorial disaster proclamation and the pandemic-related remote learning statutes no longer apply," Ayala wrote in a letter to board members Tuesday. "I am deeply grateful for the efforts of every Illinoisan that have gotten us to this point. I also recognize that every school district has had a different experience with remote learning. Some students have benefited from the flexibility or change in environment. School districts that would like to continue to offer remote learning to students on an individual basis -- if that will best meet the student’s learning needs -- may do so under other parts of the law."
Ayala said the resolution would allow for some "clarity" as districts prepare for the fall school year, making decisions on staffing and budgets.
"As always, our top priority is our students, and we know that in most cases, in-person learning is in their best interest," Ayala wrote. "Although online classes are a far better option than no classes at all, multiple studies show that students learn best when present in-person alongside their teachers, peers, and support network. That’s especially true for children who struggle academically or with mental health, and the resolution is grounded in equity to serve our students in the greatest need."
Already this spring several schools have returned to in-person instruction, including Chicago Public Schools.
"We are pleased that ISBE is guiding districts to provide five days a week of in-person instruction," CPS said in a statement. "This is what the district has been working towards and there seems to be a consensus at all levels of government that opening schools full-time in the fall is a critical priority."
Illinois has also announced plans to fully reopen as early as June 11, though masking guidelines remain in place for schools and educational institutions.
The resolution does not include a vaccine requirement, but it remains unclear if vaccinations will eventually be required for eligible age groups. Many universities across the state have already announced plans for such a requirement.
Currently, children under the age of 12 remain unable to receive a coronavirus vaccination. Studies are ongoing for younger children with both Pfizer and Moderna and some results could be released as early as the fall, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would still need to vote on a potential emergency use authorization.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that evidence suggests "many K-12 schools that have strictly implemented prevention strategies have been able to safely open for in-person instruction and remain open." The agency plans to release updated guidance for the 2021-22 school year in the "coming weeks."