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Illinois school guidance will require masks, 'strongly encourages' in-person class

A student wearing a face mask amid the new coronavirus pandemic attends class on the first day back to a rural school near Empalme Olmos, Uruguay, Monday, June 1, 2020, as the country's total lockdown begins to ease. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)
A student wearing a face mask amid the new coronavirus pandemic attends class on the first day back to a rural school near Empalme Olmos, Uruguay, Monday, June 1, 2020, as the country's total lockdown begins to ease. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)

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The Illinois State Board of Education’s forthcoming guidance regarding school this fall “strongly encourages full in-person instruction,” ISBE Chief Education Officer Dr. Ernesto Matias said during ISBE’s board meeting Wednesday.

State Superintendent Dr. Carmen Ayala said that face masks or face shields “are required at all times with students and staff.”

State educators are still awaiting guidance regarding what a return to school might look like during the coronavirus pandemic.

Further guidance is expected by the end of the month from ISBE with coordination from the governor’s office. However, some of the forthcoming guidelines were discussed at Wednesday’s meeting, which took place virtually.

While in-person class is encouraged, Matias said, “We know that might not be possible for all schools, depending on their unique student enrollment, school facilities, staffing, transportation and technological capacity.”

Board member Dr. David Lett, a longtime superintendent at Pana Community Unit School District in downstate Illinois, questioned how schools could enforce a rule on face masks.

“You’re going to have, flat out, students that are going to say: ‘I’m not wearing one,’” Lett said. “So is that going to turn into a disciplinary issue for school districts to have to deal with? Because you are going to have students who are going to say that.”

Lett went on to say that it can be difficult to communicate through a face mask.

“Point well taken, Dr. Lett,” Ayala said. “It’s something we continue to have conversations about.”

In addition to face masks, Lett asked for further information about social distancing and transportation.

Ayala said six-foot social distancing recommendations are “encouraged as much as possible,” but acknowledged that it might not be possible in all situations. At all times, face masks “have to be in place," Ayala said.

As for transportation, Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois plan allows for gatherings of up to 50 individuals. Ayala said Phase 4 – which all regions of the state are on track to reach on June 26 – makes it possible for buses to carry up to 50 people, but planning and care should be taken to ensure students are wearing masks, distancing “as much as possible,” and that windows are open for air flow.

With the school year less than two months away, Ayala said that she recognizes school districts need guidance as soon as possible. Ayala said mandates from the Illinois Department of Public Health must be followed. Further guidance, beyond public health measures, from ISBE will be flexible based on each community’s needs.

“The plan definitely has some areas, particularly public health, that have to be in place,” Ayala said. “We’re not in a position to make public health decisions. … Working with our stakeholders, it was loud and clear we needed to be able to provide the flexibility for the districts because Community A in southern Illinois is not the same as Community B in suburban Illinois or in urban Illinois. And so, as much as we have tried to provide common things, it still will remain the districts' ability, given their community context, to make the best reopening plan to meet the needs of the community and children that they serve.”

ISBE will host webinars for districts and will open up dialogue to suggestions. ISBE had a task force of 56 teachers, administrators and superintendents from across the state working on the forthcoming guidance.

Matias, the Chief Education Officer, said districts should continue planning for the fall and reviewing existing remote learning plans. Matias said such plans should maximize in-person learning, especially for higher needs students.

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