In reopening schools, state next must address educational recovery plans

  • Tony Sanders

    Tony Sanders

By Tony Sanders, Arthur R. Culver, Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat and John Price
Guest columnists
Posted7/15/2020 1:00 AM

For months, we have witnessed in awe the resilience displayed by our students, families and school staff as they navigate the COVID-19 crisis that has shuttered our campuses. Although many school buildings remain closed through the summer, educators and parents around the state are working diligently to ensure that learning continues.

However, we know this past semester had and will have an impact on our students. Many children were without access to the tools they needed to learn effectively during remote learning. This was particularly acute where parents in "essential" jobs continued to leave the home, even as child care disappeared. For others, being absent from the classroom and their caring teachers, peers, support staff and administrators compounds the trauma they experienced more generally due to the coronavirus. And, while some schools are hosting limited in-person summer school, we know that's not sufficient.


We look forward to the fall, when we can begin to reopen our schools, resume in-person learning and restore the achievement gains that are being lost to the pandemic. With that said, like everyone else, we know this virus has a life of its own, and we continue to prepare for every eventuality and recognize this school year may not go as planned, yet again.

Although our districts have different demographics and needs, two things are certain. First, this crisis is affecting every student in the state. Second, making sure all students get what they need in Illinois will require "all hands on deck" and a multi-year statewide learning recovery plan that provides flexibility for schools and districts and that is comprehensive, well-resourced and rooted in equity.

Absent serious effort, this period of emotional and academic turmoil will follow Illinois' children into adulthood. Research into other crises reveals that periods of intense learning loss resulted in lifelong negative outcomes in education, employment and earnings. To avoid such permanent impact, we will need: social-emotional and mental health supports for students and educators; educator planning time, support and training; infrastructure and training to close the digital divide; targeted supports for students most impacted by COVID-19; and additional in-person school time for students to address learning and social-emotional needs.

Some of these supports, such as high-quality professional development, will be relatively straightforward to provide and afford, particularly with federal recovery dollars. Specifically, teachers will need training in trauma-informed practices to best serve students dealing with the stress of the current public health crisis. Others, like closing the digital divide, will require a multi-agency, multi-year effort. Still, other critical supports, including making sure students have additional in-person instructional time, will require adults to set aside business as usual and develop a strategy that meets the unprecedented need facing our two million students -- especially those most negatively impacted by this crisis.

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We appreciate the State Board of Education prioritizing in-person learning and the work they have done to date under extraordinary circumstances. We now urge Governor JB Pritzker, the General Assembly and educational leaders to unite on behalf of our children to tackle remaining issues. If we are not careful, an uneven or haphazard recovery plan will compound the inequitable impact of the crisis itself. We implore state leaders to ensure critical education recovery needs -- high quality social-emotional and instructional resources and training, devices and connectivity and the time necessary to plan and learn -- are available to all districts.

We must think creatively, act boldly and remember that the future of two million children depend on our willingness to meet and respond to this once-in-a-century challenge. It is up to us. For our part, we stand ready to support and work with you.

• Tony Sanders is CEO of Elgin Area School District U-46. This essay was co-written with Arthur R. Culver, superintendent of East St. Louis School District 189, Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, superintendent of Peoria Public Schools and John Price, superintendent of North Chicago School District 187.

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