March's News: Schooling in the time of COVID-19

The unprecedented shutdown of public and private schools in dozens of states last week has illuminated one easily forgotten truism about schools: They are an absolute necessity for the functioning of civic culture, and even more fundamentally than that, daily life.

Schools are the centers of communities. They provide indispensible student-welfare services, like free meals, health care, and even dentistry. They care for children while parents work. And all those services do much to check the effects of America’s economically stratified systems of employment and health care on young students.” --When Schools Shut Down, We All Lose Education Week March 20, 2020.

Schools in Illinois are closed through at least April 7th in hopes of slowing the COVID-19 pandemic via social distancing. And it’s quite possible that they’ll need to be closed for much longer. (Chicago Public Schools have already announced it will remain closed until April 21st.)

The IL General Assembly has cancelled session for another week, and when they do meet, it will likely be short and very focused on emergency measures. Any legislation not directly related to the pandemic or to the state budget is unlikely to be called for a vote. 

As we look ahead, our advocacy will likely need to focus on ensuring that any temporary or permanent policy changes being rolled out will support public schools and public school families. For the moment, we have a basic list of resources for families during this time that we plan to keep updated here.

Yesterday the Illinois State Board of Education released remote learning recommendations and updated guidance for school districts for school closures. ISBE has said that during the previous two weeks of school closure and for the upcoming days of remote learning, grading policies should follow the principle that “no student is negatively impacted by the closure and that no school district’s policies or procedures should widen the equity gap.” 

Most schools in Illinois aren’t prepared to do remote learning fully online. And the transition to online learning presents huge privacy and equity issues and heightens concerns about children’s screen time.

Network for Public Education: Online learning: What every parent should know. Note that this report deals with non-emergency implementations of online learning. Online learning rolled out rapidly in response to emergency school closures will likely be subject to far more drastic limitations.

Accessing online education is more difficult for low-income students, students who are English-language learners themselves or whose parents or guardians are not English speakers, students who live in communities without broadband access and students with disabilities.  

Michigan State University: The Urgent Need to Move Schools Online: Four Things Your School District Needs to Know Before Taking Action

Student data privacy is inadequately protected under normal circumstances in most schools, and a wholesale push to putting education online will exacerbate existing issues. Chromebooks and Google Classroom are a known issue for student privacy. (See for example this lawsuit filed by the New Mexico Attorney General earlier this year.) 

Parent Coalition for Student Privacy: Advice to parents on maximizing privacy & minimizing screen time while your child’s school is closed

ACLU: Those “Free” Remote Learning Apps Have a High Cost: Your Student’s Privacy

No matter what schools are able to roll out in terms of distance learning—digital or otherwise, parents, teachers and policymakers need to keep things in perspective about what the coming weeks and months will hold. 

The scale and scope of disruption and uncertainty that children and families will experience in the coming months or are already experiencing is unprecedented for most people. Worries about missing some months of academic instruction will likely be overshadowed by more fundamental concerns about shelter, food, safety and mental and physical health—concerns that many public school families were dealing with even before the current pandemic.

Washington Post: A trauma-informed approach to teaching through coronavirus — for students everywhere, online or not

Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig: Advice for Parents: Talking to Kids About COVID-19

Olivia Mulcahey: Take Care. That is the Curriculum.

The past two weeks of school closures, necessary but difficult, have reinforced the value of our public schools as a crucial institution for our families, our communities and our state. Learning is a social process that takes place with other humans. No amount of screen time will truly replace in-person interaction with peers, teachers and staff in our physical school buildings.

The current crisis means difficult days now and ahead, but we hope that it can also mean a strengthening of our collective resolve to fight for a robust public school system that serves the public good.