When Governor JB Pritzker issued a Gubernatorial Disaster Proclamation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12, 2020, the effects on the P-20 education spectrum were complex and far reaching. Subsequent Executive Order (EO) 2020-05 temporarily closed all public and private P-12 schools in Illinois starting March 17; and EO 2020-07, which banned public gatherings of 50 people or more, resulted in the temporary cancellation of face-to-face instruction at institutions of higher education (IHEs) across the state. EO 2020-10 defined educational institutions as “Essential Businesses and Operations” which allowed public and private P-12 schools and IHEs to remain open, “for purposes of facilitating distance learning, performing critical research, or performing essential functions” as long as proper safety precautions were taken. This provision allowed schools and IHEs to continue essential operations, but the disruptions to the lives of students, faculty, and staff were felt in a variety of ways:
- Some residential students for whom their IHE is their only home had no choice but to remain in campus housing (e.g. homeless students or international students unable to return home due to travel restrictions, etc.). While the vast majority of staff and faculty worked remotely, a small number of staff in residence life, dining, and other essential services remained on campus to provide for these students.
- Students from elementary through postsecondary made the quick transition to remote learning. The lucky ones had computers and home internet that facilitated their transition to online learning, but many had no such resources available. Even if schools provided a tablet or chrome book, without reliable internet at home these students struggled to keep up with their better-resourced peers. This digital “homework gap” according to a Pew Research Center study is more pronounced for students in rural areas, lower income households, and students of color.
- Students participating in student teaching, internships, clinicals, apprenticeships, and other types of required experiential learning were unable to complete these requirements, many just weeks before graduation.
- Faculty members from across the P-20 spectrum, many of whom had not taught online previously had to learn new instructional methods in a matter of days.
- Elementary and secondary students accustomed to eating two meals a day at school and in many cases taking food home on the weekends suddenly found this crucial nutritional source interrupted.
With little warning of the coming of this disruption to our educational system, schools, IHEs, and state agencies sprang into action to mitigate the impact on students across the state. A few examples of individual and collaborative actions taken to help students were:
- A Drive Up Wi-Fi Hotspot Map was created through a collaborative effort between the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE), the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB), the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity, the Illinois Department of Innovation & Technology, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), and the Illinois State Library to help students find free, drive-up Internet access across the state. A Spanish translation of the tool is also available.
- The ICCB, the IBHE, and the Illinois Articulation Initiative released joint guidance on pass/fail, credit/no credit, and other non-qualitative binary grading methods in an effort to reduce the negative impact on students resulting from the rapid and unforeseen transition to remote learning.
- ISBE, IBHE, and ICCB released joint dual credit guidance. Dual credit models allow high school students to take courses in high schools, community colleges, or workforce training centers and earn both high school and college credit. The joint guidance was created to advise secondary and postsecondary institutions in Illinois on supporting and accommodating students enrolled in dual credit during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
- The IBHE, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC), and the ICCB joined in partnership with the Southern Illinois University Foundation to create the Public University and Community College Student COVID-19 Emergency Fund. Any public university or community college student in Illinois can apply for these funds through their institution’s financial aid office to help cover basic expenses like food, medicine, and rent during the pandemic. To date, about $700,000 have been raised from private donors.
- ISBE and IBHE released joint guidance for institutions of higher education on exemptions of educator licensure requirements; and ISBE released a FAQ document for licensure candidates. These guidance documents were created to help educator preparation programs and students understand the exemptions created by EO 2020-31, which made it possible for candidates to become licensed despite barriers created by the COVID-19 health emergency, like disruptions to student teaching and closure of testing centers. The same EO also provided exemptions to certain graduation requirements for eighth and twelfth grade students so they could graduate on time.
- School districts across the state have continued to distribute food to families in need during the pandemic and ISBE provided them with guidance to navigate the complexities of food distribution during this time.
In conclusion, the course of the COVID-19 pandemic fluctuates daily making it difficult for education leaders to know the best course of action for the upcoming academic year. Innovations in testing technologies, efforts to create a vaccine, the status of Federal relief efforts, and the effects of reopening business, education, and recreation sectors as part of the Restore Illinois plan will all affect the abilities of educational institutions to resume in-person instruction. IBHE recently convened a committee to shape guidance on how college and university campuses across the state can open safely this fall semester, and ISBE and ICCB are involved in a parallel efforts. Check these agencies’ websites regularly for more information.
Dr. Sophia Gehlhausen Anderson is a member of the 2015 Doctor of Public Administration cohort. She currently serves as Assistant Director for Academic Affairs at the Illinois Board of Higher Education, and has over twenty years of professional experience in education and nonprofit administration. Her research interests include student success in postsecondary education, especially as it relates to underrepresented groups; retention initiatives; validation theory; and state and federal education policy. Her dissertation title was, “Postsecondary Education Attainment: The Importance of Living Learning Communities and Validation in Affecting Student Outcomes.”
If you have questions, feel free to connect with us and request more information!