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Virtual school, real confusion

More kids in Evanston are likely to be back in the non-virtual classroom this fall -- but there's still uncertainty around the rules -- and the course of the pandemic.

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In the same week that Evanston/Skokie School District 65 outlined plans for a virtual school option this fall, District 202 said in a bold-lettered release that a remote instructional model will not be offered at Evanston Township High School during the 2021-22 school year.

And to make things more confusing, the Illinois State Board of Education approved a resolution saying “all schools must resume fully in-person instruction for all student attendance days” in the next school year, but added a hard-to-figure-out exception.

The District 202 memo says parents/guardians can fill out a medical exemption form “if your child has a medical reason that may prevent them from fully returning to in-person learning in the fall so that we may support the best educational next steps,” but it does not outline what those steps may be.

District 65 also plans a full return to in-person learning in August for its elementary and middle school students, and most students are expected to do that.

However, District 65 has also described a vigorous “virtual learning pathway” for students who “may be unable to return” to in person school “for various reasons,” according to Superintendent Devon Horton.

Horton says students with medical issues or special needs will be prioritized for remote learning, and if demand exceeds the district’s ability to provide it, there may have to be a lottery. Families are asked to sign up by May 28 if they want virtual learning.

One big reason for the differing approaches may be COVID-19 vaccinations. Everyone over age 12 is now eligible to receive the shots. That covers all high school students, so their medical need for virtual school may not be very significant.

On the other hand, only a small number of middle and elementary school students are older than 12, so COVID susceptibility may be a larger concern.

As for the Illinois Board of Education, the statement that schools “must” resume in-person learning comes with a qualifier, that remote instruction must also be “made available to students who are not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine and are under a quarantine order by a local public health department….”

The hangup comes with the highlighted “and.” If remote learning is only allowed for the unvaccinated who are quarantined, it could leave a large number of those wanting remote education unable to get it.

But wait, there’s more. The state board’s resolution still has to be formalized by the State Superintendent of Education.

And, there’s something else … the coronavirus, which forced all schools into remote learning in March 2020. The pandemic may be easing, and most schools now have some component of in-person learning, but that could all change in a minute.

The state board’s resolution about in-person education this fall says it is “subject to favorable public health conditions at that time.”

keywords » COVID-19

Jeff Hirsh

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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