One week Later: Thoughts on ISBE's Guidance on Returning to School

Last week in Suburban Life I weighed in on the ISBE Guidance on returning to school immediately after processing it and building this summary overview. Now one week later, after being interviewed by John Williams on AM 720 on these topics and having more time to think about it - I have put together what I believe regarding these guidelines as of today - July 2nd - with about 6 weeks left to develop a plan to return to school.

The pandemic has impacted everyone in the world and we are all struggling to figure out how to navigate our new situation. Please know that I truly appreciate the work of the Illinois State Board of Education and the task force that developed the guidance. I always try to presume good intentions and I believe all of those working on the ISBE Guidance have the best of intentions for students and families.

My biggest concern is that the ISBE Guidance should have been released as DRAFT guidance weeks ago and shared with others to provide feedback- this is how essential, key guidance has been released in the past...
   
There was already clear guidance issued from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIST) - (released on June 12) which ISBE reiterates and links to in their 63-page Guidance. I feel as if the 63 pages could have been reduced to a couple of pages with clear and unequivocal guidelines of what we must do in priority order and then linked back to the NIST guidance. With this we could have been working 3 weeks earlier and have definitive guidance by now. 

In ISBE’s Guidance they list 5 things are mandatory:

1. Require use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), including face coverings;
2. Prohibit more than 50 individuals from gathering in one space;
3. Require social distancing be observed, as much as possible;
4. Require that schools conduct symptom screenings and temperature checks or require that
people self-certify that they are free of symptoms before entering school buildings; and
5. Require an increase in schoolwide cleaning and disinfection.

However this guidance is nebulous - How do we interpret “As Possible” - especially for large districts like ours, which house 2,000+ students at staff at each school? What is more important: Bringing every student back to school at the same time or maintaining social distancing? Picking one of those priorities leads to completely different plans for returning to school. 

We have received conflicting and confusing guidelines with no priorities 
  • Social Distancing vs. Bring Everyone Back/prioritize in-person learning
  • Keep students apart vs. Ride the bus with up to 50 people for an unknown duration of time
  • Check for temperatures before entering the building - No touch thermometers work on dry skin in a draft free room
The guidance is ever-changing even though the health guidance has not changed since last week. Yet, there are already significant changes to the 5 mandatory requirements since the original guidance was released last week, and after a series of webinars was held, and multiple meetings with other school and health department officials occurred. This includes the following:
  • Face shields being allowed vs. face masks (Governor and ISBE both said face shields are ok substitutes - now they are not)
  • Self certification - now needs to be daily, rather than a one-time oath from parents and students that they would perform this check--how to administer this? That isn’t outlined in the guidance.
  • Social distancing - in the FAQ desks now do not need to be 6 feet apart. (There is no guidance from the CDC that less than 6 feet for periods of more than 15 minutes is ok)
I appreciate local control on topics that should be decided with local control. The guidance of health professionals is not a topic we as educators should be determining. I prefer to defer to science and data when it comes to the health and safety of our students and staff.

We need clear and prioritized health and return to school requirements. From there we can determine what a school day looks like.

Unfortunately now we will end up with key differences from school to school and the comparisons and criticisms will begin. Local superintendents will make the best decisions they can for the health and safety of students with lots of room for second guessing and decisions that will drive wedges between members of their community.

This is difficult enough to plan for opening up school with thousands of students without clear guidance that is changing on nearly a daily basis.

Yes, there are 852 school districts in Illinois and local control is a huge benefit to our model of schools in Illinois. Our communities vary in size, needs and affluence. We are different, but all share the same desire to keep our students and communities safe. I believe ISBE could construct “tiers” of solutions based on school type (elementary, middle, high school) and population size to create concise requirements and standards. The desire to protect health is not unique to any single school district.

What am I asking for one week later?

  1. Clear, concise, prioritized, and precise health guidance from our state public education and health officials.
  2. A return to superintendents receiving advanced draft guidance so we can prepare before the public receives the information - and directly emailing information with specific updates to superintendents - instead of only posting a lengthy FAQ on the web.
  3. A statement on which health organization's guidance we are supposed to follow - CDC, IDPH, WHO, Local Health Departments - there is so much conflicting information out there - who is the appropriate source for Illinois Schools?

We need it fast - time is running out.

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