By Regional Superintendent Dr. Kyle Thompson
Not unlike 9/11/01, the Challenger explosion, or the assassination of JFK, for every educator out there the statewide closure of schools was a “where were you when” moment. We spent the week slowly watching states across the nation close their schools and plans began to develop as to what would happen if we had to close our own schools. Our Regional Office of Education #11 staff gathered around the large presentation screen and watched the press conference as schools were closed until the end of March. In what many originally thought was an extended spring break, everyone started guessing. Will we be back after Easter? Will we return May 1? Will they let us see our students for the last couple of days? There was no closure for anyone. Zoom subscriptions skyrocketed as we closed out the 2019-2020 school year in remote learning and virtual meetings.
Put kindly, the fourth quarter was hectic for everyone, and I mean everyone. As educators began to evaluate how we handled remote learning, we also began to look toward the fall. Over the past few months, school districts have met with community committees, district leadership teams, bargaining units, and taken into consideration survey feedback to formulate reopening plans that best fit their community. From the beginning, the efforts of our educators have been nothing short of heroic as they have worked tirelessly to prepare for the 2020-2021 school year, which will be a year unlike any other.
The planning has been constant, changing daily based on new information or an edict from another level. It has been intentional, with every possible outcome considered. On June 4, the Illinois State Board of Education published a 27 page joint guidance document for school leaders to review. On June 23, they published a 60 page document for review, and on July 23, their most recent document was 103 pages. A day later, the governor issued Executive Order 2020-47, where he reaffirmed ISBE’s summer publications and essentially solidified that the decision to return to school would be a local one, removing doubt (for now) about another statewide school shutdown. Keeping up with and planning in response to the latest update from the Governor, the Illinois Department of Public Health, and the Illinois State Board of Education has been all-consuming for educational leaders since March. The logistics are virtually impossible to put into words. They have worked continuously from the beginning and their efforts should be applauded. The logistical challenges faced by those in education are truly monumental.
All school personnel – bus drivers, maintenance, teacher aides, cafeteria workers, secretaries, teachers, administrators, etc. – have consistently stepped in, stepped up, overcome obstacles, and made the safety of our students their first priority. The focus remains on doing what is right, embracing the opportunity to rise to the challenge, and forging a new chapter in education. It is evident that this pandemic has forced us to grow and has proven that we are better together. With grace and patience, we will continue to make the next right choice for our students, school districts, and communities. In each of the seven counties represented in ROE #11, we are committed to return to learning, however that now looks, and we will continue to adjust and adapt throughout the school year.
In just a few days, many learners will be waking up (perhaps earlier than they are used to), taking “first day of school” pictures, and will get in a bus or car for the first day of school. In most cases, their last day at school was five months ago on Friday, March 13. While we all look forward to the familiar rhythms of the school day, we also know that many things will look different this year. Just last week I was explaining to my own children how school would look different moving forward. Even as a veteran educator, doing so was more challenging than I expected. I can only imagine how these conversations are going in households across the nation. Some students will not be traveling to school but will engage in remote learning by interacting with their teachers and peers from home. Returning to school this year is a new experience for all of us that includes new procedures and technologies, social distancing, and masks. As with all things new, we will learn to navigate this together.