From the Desk of Robin Steans – Prioritizing Learning Renewal

Posted on June 03, 2021

From the Desk: Prioritizing Learning Renewal

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

We are now at a vital turning point in our nation’s response and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 28, 2021, over half of the country and 40 percent of Illinoisans have been fully vaccinated; children 12 and over are eligible for vaccines; billions in federal relief funds are flowing to Illinois business, child care programs, schools and agencies; and our state’s economy is seeing a rebound. While this is all exciting news, we must not overlook the work our schools will begin to put in toward learning renewal and addressing the social and emotional needs of our students. To say this past year has been challenging is an understatement. It will take considerable and collective effort to overcome the impact the past year has had on students, families, and educators, and it cannot be done hastily or quickly – it will take a multi-year effort to recover and come back stronger than ever. 

With Illinois’ investment of $350 million in the evidence-based funding formula (thank you, General Assembly!) together with significant federal stimulus dollars the state received this past spring, our schools and educators will have significant funds to resource renewal efforts. With these funds, our K-12 districts and schools are in a position to provide the additional instructional and planning time widely recommended to implement the evidence-based supports we know will help our students thrive. 

For the past 16 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted education in every community, exacerbating systemic racial, ethnic and socio-economic inequities and creating unprecedented challenges for children and families as well as educators. Over the past year, Advance Illinois has shared researchanalysis and studies examining this impact and the potential long-term implications of months of disrupted learning environments. As more national and state data become available, we must continue to adjust our thinking and plans and take advantage of every opportunity to better understand how students are doing – academically, socially, emotionally and beyond. 

In response to this once-in-a-century crisis, we are heartened by the tremendous state and local leadership emerging and by efforts to elevate and coordinate research-based practices to inform short and long-term recovery and renewal efforts from early childhood through postsecondary. These efforts include the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development’s enrollment campaign; stabilization and restoration grants for child care providers; ISBE’s ESSER investments in the digital divide, high-impact tutoring, bridge programs, mental health professional development and supports, and interim assessments; encouraging higher education institutions to fund work-study programs in hardest hit communities; proposed investment in the educator workforce; the Illinois P20 Council Learning Renewal Resource Guide; and the recent adoption of the Extended Time Resolution (SR0232), which encourages districts statewide to add additional time to the school day and/or school year to help all students address the unprecedented need brought on by COVID-19 learning disruption. Many educators across the state have already begun to establish and adopt strong foundations for renewal, but we know that these plans are just the beginning of what is needed and there is still work to be done. 

With over $5 billion American Rescue Plan resources available to support K-12 learning renewal in Illinois (the vast majority at the district level), we must continue to ensure these dollars are invested thoughtfully and equitably in an effort to ensure our schools are meeting the full and comprehensive needs of all our students. Here, the state has the opportunity to take a leadership role in: 

  • coordinating and building local capacity to investigate, select, and implement evidence-based supports; 
  • maintaining a focus on equity in how resources are distributed and monitored;  
  • collecting and analyzing data on both the impact of COVID-19 across our education system as well as the success of the planned interventions and supports; and 
  • using its bully pulpit and state level investments to drive our ecosystem to build back better.  

Furthermore, in addition to the requirement that at least 20 percent of these resources be used to support evidence-based interventions to support “learning loss,” at a local level, leaders can: 

  • Ensure transparency in both the process and implementation of learning renewal effortsThis includes following US Department of Education requirements to meaningfully plan and consult with local stakeholders around how these funds will be used, which includes but is not limited to engaging students, families, civil rights organizations, tribes and school administrators and educators. 
  • Invest resources in a way that accounts for the historic and growing inequities exacerbated by COVID-19. 
  • Collect information and data on implementation and student progress and be willing to adapt plans as we learn more about the depth and breadth of our children’s social, emotional and academic needs. 
  • Follow the urging of national education leaders and advocates, as well as the Extended Time Resolution (SR0232) and Dr. Ayala’s guidance and leverage federal and state resources to provide students and teachers with additional in-person instructional and planning time in an equitable, meaningful and aligned manner to enable academic and non-academic recovery. 

While we look forward to “going back to normal,” it is not an option to simply revert to a status quo that was not serving all children well. Instead, we have a once-in-a-century opportunity – and need – to look ahead and redesign our system to support student recovery and renewal, and do so in a way that leads to lasting and stronger academic and social supports. The federal government and the state have responded to this crisis with the financial resources needed to begin our path toward renewal. We must now all roll up our sleeves and do the hard work to help our children and students get on a path to live out their true potential. We look forward to working with partners and leaders across the state to monitor student needs, progress and opportunities for transformative change. 

Sincerely and in partnership,

Robin Steans