From the Desk of Robin Steans – Education Must Remain a High Priority for Illinois – K-12

Posted on April 15, 2020

This is the first in a three-part series that will share our views on the urgency of providing resources and ongoing support to early childhood education, K-12 and postsecondary. We begin with K-12.

From the Desk: Education Must Remain a High Priority for Illinois – Part 1: K-12

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

As the world continues to take steps to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, and as business, schools, universities, and childcare centers remain physically closed, it is clear that the crisis will have a profound impact on the state’s infrastructure and budget. Last week, financial experts from the University of Illinois System’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs published a report that projected the revenue impact to the State over the next four years to be in the range of $10 billion to $28 billion.   

We continue to applaud heroic efforts around the state to make sure children and families have the food, shelter, and care they need to be safe and healthy. This focus on meeting immediate needs is appropriate and ongoing. That said, it is vital that we not only meet immediate necessities, but plan now for how best to address what we know will be significant recovery and rebuilding needs.

While the C.A.R.E.S Act represents $2 trillion in federal aid, the reality is that we will face serious needs when the crisis passes. As members of the General Assembly organize themselves into working groups to manage the State’s budget in this deeply uncertain and fluid time, we believe there are some critical education issues that must be prioritized.

Let’s look at the current K-12 landscape.

No matter how hard we work now to make remote learning a success, it is inevitable that many, if not most students, will miss the opportunity to make expected learning gains. Indeed, one early analysis concludes:

“Preliminary COVID slide estimates suggest students will return in fall 2020 with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year. However, in mathematics, students are likely to show much smaller learning gains, returning with less than 50% of the learning gains and in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions.”

Importantly, the impact of lost learning opportunities will almost certainly be felt inequitably around the state. Access to the basic technological infrastructure required for more engaging forms of remote learning varies by race, income, and region. Advance Illinois’ analysis of 2018 American Community Survey data shows that Black and Latinx K-12 aged children in Illinois are 2-3x more likely to lack access to internet and devices than White children. Children in rural Illinois are also less likely to have access to high-speed internet. This research is consistent with more than two-thirds of districts reporting to ISBE that they did not have all they needed to transition smoothly to remote or e-learning during this crisis.

Many students will also need additional emotional support as they recover from the trauma and dislocation of recent events. And, most likely, these needs will be felt disproportionately among students of color, rural students, and children from low-income families. Cases and deaths from COVID-19 are already disproportionately impacting communities of color, which will only exacerbate higher rates of traumatic Adverse Childhood Experiences that Black and Latinx children are likely to face during school closures.

Let’s look ahead…

Even as we work to meet student and staff social-emotional and academic needs through the end of the school year, we should organize ourselves to meet these needs once the immediate crisis has passed.  Roughly 1/3 of our students’ school year will be disrupted by COVID-19 closures. While there are few analogs to such a widespread and long lasting crisis, lessons learned from research and other disasters makes evident that recovery will take time and resources and that, absent coordinated and serious intervention, the impact of disruption may be long term.

For Illinois, this will likely involve adding time to the school day and year, ensuring enhanced social and emotional supports and/or staffing and perhaps both diagnostic and instructional strategies to help teachers and families understand and address the academic circumstances of their students. In addition, we should consider providing additional mentoring and support for new and veteran teachers alike. 

Designing, implementing, and affording such strategies will be a challenge. Ensuring essential recovery and rebuilding resources for all schools and students across 850 districts at a time when budgets at every level are battered will be near-impossible, absent careful thought and effort. Similar to how there has been a need for strong state leadership and coordination during this time of immediate crisis, we will need an equally strong state presence during this time of rebuilding and recovery.

Given this, here are some considerations we may all want to keep in mind as we look ahead to the recovery phase of this situation:

  • Take a long view. It will not be a simple or quick matter to address the social-emotional or academic fallout of this pandemic. As a state, we must come together to understand what students and school communities will need to get back on track and commit ourselves to meeting those needs over time. Critically, we should keep in mind that recovery and rebuilding cannot be done quickly or in a rush but may take years. We should prepare and execute long term strategies, not short-term fixes.
  • Recognize that this crisis both reveals and exacerbates deep and longstanding inequities. While all children and families are being profoundly affected by this crisis and by school closures, it is important to acknowledge that the impact will almost certainly have an inequitable impact. Everything from the availability of technology in different homes and districts to the ability of working parents to oversee home schooling and the level of additional resources available to address a wide range of needs will almost inevitably be impacted by race, disability status, and poverty. Accordingly, any recovery strategy must ensure that all students get the supplementary supports they need so that these disparities do not stand or widen. While we could let 850 individual districts chart their own path on this, there is clearly a role for the state to ensure our most impacted students receive the supports they so desperately need.
  • Use all available resources creatively and strategically to ensure an equitable, statewide recovery. While it is tempting to spend all available dollars in the here and now, the reality is that we have significant needs still to come and deeply uncertain financial circumstances ahead.  One way or another, we must commit to providing the recovery supports we know will be needed and do so equitably across the state. And, we may need to join forces with other states to push the federal government for additional resources to address what will be significant common needs across the country.
  • Prioritize putting another $350 million into the school funding formula as planned. We recognize this represents a significant challenge generally, let alone in the current economic climate. But there is quite literally no better way to ensure that badly needed dollars get to the districts with students who need help the most. Difficult as it may be, now is not the time to back away from investing in Evidence-Based Funding as planned.
  • Support educators as they adjust to new learning strategies and face an uncertain few years. The urgent need for well-trained, diverse educators, social workers, and counselors just got more intense. Our students are going to need this expertise to recover and rebuild. And, teachers will need additional mentoring and professional development to adjust effectively to remote learning that may become a more common element of schooling and to diagnose and address student academic and emotional needs that may vary greatly even within classrooms. This is especially true for the roughly 6,000 new teachers who will come into classrooms without myriad traditional elements of preparation, including student teaching experiences. Using state and/or flexible federal stimulus dollars to invest in some targeted strategies to provide relevant mentoring and training can help ensure students’ adult lives are not defined by this pandemic.

The educational recovery from COVID-19 will not be a sprint to a finish line. It will be a marathon: a relay marathon with multiple partners passing the baton to each other and leveraging every ounce of fortitude, creativity, and caring we can muster on behalf of our children. Their future – and more broadly our state’s future – depends on what we do now. Let’s get to work.

Sincerely and in partnership,

Robin Steans
President