SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois public schools and colleges will open this fall despite the COVID-19 pandemic, with help from the state to provide 2.5 million face coverings to K-12 students to help prevent transmission of the virus, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Tuesday.
Pritzker was joined by a group of education administrators in Chicago to announce COVID-19 safety guidelines for community colleges and universities.
Illinois has received $569 million in federal pandemic relief funds. The bulk of that will go directly to elementary and secondary schools to handle local needs in response to the outbreak. The Illinois State Board of Education will use $54 million of it to help schools buy laptops and tablets, internet connectivity, virtual coaching for teachers and professional development.
“Classroom learning provides necessary opportunities for our students to learn, socialize and grow,” Pritzker said in releasing guidelines for safe classroom learning. “The benefits of in-person instruction can’t be overstated.”
COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, has sickened nearly 138,000 people in Illinois and contributed to the deaths of 6,707 through Tuesday, public health officials said. As the virus gripped Illinois in March, Pritzker ordered schools to close. Students participated in heavily criticized remote learning for the remainder of the semester, along with stay-at-home guidelines that remained in place through May.
But on Monday, Pritzker announced that the spread of the illness remains controlled enough to allow the state to move into the fourth of his five-stage Restore Illinois plan for re-opening schools and business and lifting some restrictions on social interaction.
Meanwhile, in schools, staff and students will wear face coverings, and gatherings of more than 50 people will be prohibited. People are advised to social distance by least 6 feet whenever possible. Schools are also expected to ensure that people entering their premises are free of symptoms and increase disinfection of buildings.
The state’s two major teachers unions, the Illinois Education Association and Illinois Federation of Teachers, expressed concern that safety precautions are lacking in a joint statement issued by IEA president Kathi Griffin and IFT president Dan Montgomery.
“Anxiety remains high over class sizes and the lack of school nurses and other health and safety resources,” the statement said. “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.”
The statement raised concerns about the number of personal protective equipment available. The state board and Pritzker’s administration have set up umbrella purchasing agreements that allow districts to buy supplies at lower prices than if they procured them individually. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency will provide 2.5 million cloth face coverings to distribute to all students and staff.
State and federal health officials have said face coverings should be changed daily and that each person should have several so that a fresh one may be worn while others are laundered. But they’ve also pointed out that virtually any discarded shirts or other material made be used to make them.
Similar guidelines were announced for community colleges and four-year institutions, which expect to have dormitories, cafeterias, libraries and other facilities open to students with proper safeguards.