On March 27, Illinois Superintendent of Education Dr. Carmen I. Ayala declared that “Remote Learning Days” would begin for schools statewide on March 31 and continue until in-person instruction could resume. Each school district was directed to prepare a Remote Learning Days Rlan. ISBE adopted an emergency rule providing guidance for the plans.

At that time, schools were closed for in-person instruction through the end of April. On April 17, Governor J.B. Pritzker announced that he was closing down in-person instruction at all public and private schools for the balance of this school year. Schools will thus continue with remote learning through at least that time.

School District 65 has developed a Remote Learning Plan and posted information about the plan on its website for parents and students.

“Our Remote Learning Plan is largely based on guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education with input from District 65 educators, school leaders, special service staff, and the curriculum and instruction team,” says the District.

“Remote Learning is not perfect, and hard as we try, it can never replace the learning environment and experiences our teachers provide in their classrooms. Further, we recognize the challenges and inequities many of our students and their families face. Yet, we hold the promise of affording quality learning experiences for all of our students in this challenging time and we are immensely grateful to our talented educators, hardworking staff, and leaders for making this possible.”

What Are the Expectations?

While the District says it is “committed to engaging all students in remote learning opportunities that are relevant, engaging, and aligned to State Standards,” there is no pretense that the remote learning will be comparable to in-class instruction.

“Our families are being asked to do so much – please do not put pressure on yourselves to take on the role of teacher,” says the District in its guidance to families. “Our educators are conscious of designing learning that balances independent work with opportunities to engage with an adult to support learning. Students should be celebrated for engaging in their learning and for their growth.

“Lessons and activities are meant to strengthen students’ previous learned skills while introducing a limited amount of new learning. In the case that new content is introduced, the expectation will be exposure and growth in learning. Mastery of new learning will not be expected during this remote learning period.”

On April 17, Dr. Ayala gave her perspective. She posed the question, “Will students return to school totally caught up?” She said, “We’re not expecting them to.”

Dr. Ayala added, “The Illinois State Board of Education will be releasing transition guidance to help school districts address learning loss and students’ social and emotional needs when they return to the classroom, whenever that is safe to do.”

Engaging Students

Under District 65’s plan, “Students/families should remain connected with their teacher(s) on a daily basis and engage in educator-provided learning opportunities. Educators will post weekly learning expectations in learning platforms “SeeSaw” (for grades K to 2) or “Google Classroom” (for grades 3 to 8) by 9 a.m. each Monday. 

While the goal is to have students consistently engaging in learning throughout the week, the plan allows flexibility and does not control how and when this learning occurs. “We recognize that students may have parents/caregivers who are busy working in/outside of the home with limited ability to help during the day, students who are caring for siblings or who may simply need a remote-learning schedule that is flexible.”

The District has different plans for the elementary and the middle school grades.

Grades K to 5

Based on guidance from ISBE, District 65 is designing learning to engage students in grades K to 2 for 90 minutes a day and to engage students in grades 3 to 5 for 120 minutes a day. Student engagement includes time that students are spending actively engaged in educator assigned learning.

“The engaged learning time will focus on the areas that are most critical for transition into the next grade,” says the District. “Most engagement time will focus on math and literacy (with integration of science and social studies content) and physical health. Community building and connections will be a priority during educator office hours.”

In addition, the District encourages families to take advantage of provided enrichment opportunities (drama, music, visual arts, and library), physical education, social emotional learning, and STEM extensions including computer science. Links to these activities are posted to the District 65 website. 

For grades K-5, attendance is defined as evidence of student participation in remote learning activities and may include attending a video conference, commenting in SeeSaw, responding to a Google Form question, or a guardian’s emailing about a student’s work.

If there is no evidence of engagement in the learning opportunities, a student will be marked absent. If evidence is submitted at a later date, the absent marking may be changed to present.

Grades 6-8

In grades 6-8, students and their families should remain connected with their teacher(s) on a daily basis and engage in provided learning opportunities. For these grades, District 65 is designing learning to engage students for 180 minutes for each school day.

“Students will continue to engage with learning in all of their courses for smaller amounts of learning time,” says the District. “Weekly engagement time is estimated to be approximately 3.5 hours each in Literacy and math (double block) and 1.5- 2 hours in each of the remaining classes (single block).”

Again, students are encouraged to take advantage of provided enrichment opportunities (drama, music, visual arts, and library), physical education, social emotional learning, and STEM extensions including computer science. These activities can be found on the District 65 website.

Student attendance for grades 6-8 will be taken for each class period on a daily basis. However, flexibility will be offered to support student and family needs. While students are encouraged to participate in live lessons and other opportunities to collaborate and engage with their teacher and peers, students also have the option to participate in lessons and activities for each class period throughout the day and not necessarily at the regularly scheduled time. Attendance will be assessed based on engagement at any point of the day not just during the class period. Staff will record/adjust attendance to reflect engagement every Monday. 

Grading K-8

District 65 says its grading practices are largely informed by the remote learning guidance provided by ISBE. 

“Students’ overall grades will not be negatively impacted during remote learning,” says the District. “The emphasis and focus for schoolwork assigned, reviewed, and completed is on student progress and learning, not assignment completion or due dates.

“Educators will practice flexibility and responsiveness when assessing learning and assigning grades. Educators will look for opportunities to focus on strengths and provide information from which a student can learn and improve.

“We recognize that there are a number of factors that may impact student learning and the level of engagement during this very difficult time. … All students will have the opportunity to redo, make up, or try again to complete, show progress, or attempt to complete work assigned prior to remote learning.

“If educators are unable to connect with a student or there is little to no engagement in daily learning activities, they will reach out to parents/caregivers to discuss.” 

Learning Platforms

During remote learning, K-2 educators will use the SeeSaw learning platform to engage with students and for students to share work with educators and parents. Students can use Seesaw learning tools to post to their journal, view and respond to activities, view announcements from the teacher, and comment on their own work.

In Grades 3-8, educators will use Google Classroom to engage with students during remote learning. Through Google Classroom, students can receive assignments, communicate with their teacher(s), and receive grades and feedback.

 Google Meet is a video conferencing tool that may be used to host live class sessions. These may include class meetings, morning routines, and small group support or follow learning. Any live lessons will be recorded and made available to provide flexible learning options.

To avoid conflicts and to help maintain consistency for young children, educators have been asked to host live sessions during specified times.

The Digital Divide

The District’s remote learning plan recognizes that some households do not have access to the internet or to computer devices. Since the closing of schools in March, District 65 says it has lent families more than 700 Chromebooks and 200 WiFi hot spots.

“We are continuing to identify students and families who need technology so we can support remote learning to the greatest extent possible. We will continue to loan out our resources and are working to procure more technology on behalf of District 65 as well as generous community partners. All technology loaned from District 65 will need to be returned upon the re-opening of schools.”

On April 17, Gov. Pritzker said the State is receiving $569 million to support the K-12 schools from the federal CARES Act. “This can help equip students with technology and internet access, to enhance remote learning, support teachers in developing remote instructional skills, and assist schools in continuing to provide meals to students,” he said.

“Public school districts will receive a portion of this funding, proportional to the number of low-income students that they serve and the Illinois State Board of Education will direct the remaining funds toward supporting our districts that need those resources most.”

Dr. Ayala said, “Many families don’t have sufficient access to computers or the internet at home. We’re going to tackle the digital divide as part of a strategic effort that goes beyond the end of this pandemic. We will use the Illinois State Board of Education federal CARES Act dollars to increase access to technology and devices in our least resourced districts, and we encourage school district to use the CARE Act funds allocation for this purpose as well. Closing the digital divide will be pivotal to building the agency’s new post-pandemic strategic plan.”

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...