Illinois school districts are the nation’s most fragmented. Here’s why that makes the decision to return to school in the fall so complicated.
The decision about how and when to return to school is complicated for every district in the nation. But in Illinois, a state with more districts than any other, that choice is uniquely complex.
Across the nation, school districts are struggling to create workable reopening plans. In Pennsylvania, more state guidance is needed for districts to reopen. In New York, over 100 districts did not correctly submit reopening plans.
Workable reopening plans are difficult to launch and often controversial for everyone. But Illinois deals with another obstacle: too many school districts. Way too many school districts.
In Illinois, 211 districts serve only one school. There are 31 school districts with fewer than 100 students enrolled and 463 districts with fewer than 1,000 students enrolled. Not only does this place a large administrative burden on some districts to create a plan, but it also undermines regional coordination to achieve health outcomes that impact the community beyond the school district.
In Illinois, we have many different school district types. The main categories are elementary districts, high school districts, and unit districts, which provide services from Pre-Kindergarten to grade 12. With all of these different types, school districts often overlap with one another, and may or may not overlap with municipal or county boundaries.
With 852 school districts in the state, this means there are 852 possible reopening plans.
With 852 school districts in the state, this means there are 852 possible reopening plans. 852 different sets of decision-makers, with 852 different local realities. Each plan ideally should be informed by health information from the County and State. While the Illinois State Board of Education put out guidelines for reopening, it is up to the district to make all final decisions. Remote learning, in-class, and hybrid contingencies need to be designed, scheduled, staffed, and implemented in uncertain health and educational environment. A lot rests of school districts to create all of these scenarios in a relatively short amount of time.
The Crisscrossing School District Boundaries in Cook County Alone
Here are some challenges school districts face that impact a family’s ability to navigate the school decision this fall:
School district boundaries make coordination difficult. The first layer of complexity is responding to the directives of the State government. The Illinois State Board of Education provided reopening guidelines for school districts but leaves the decision to local officials. After the political conflict that arose from Governor Pritzker’s stay-at-home orders, it is not surprising that reopening decisions have been pushed to the local level.
Local coordination can also be complex. Coordination often needs to occur between cities and school districts and between school districts themselves. Each unit of government has its governing structure, rules, and guidelines and acts based on what it feels is in the best interests of its residents. As school districts announce their plans, the potential exists for conflict to arise, especially if the reopening process differs between overlapping or neighboring districts.
School districts now are tasked with public health duties. Another area of coordination for school districts lies with health agencies. The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) put out guidelines for school districts in preparation for dealing with COVID-19. Data systems need to be developed to provide disease surveillance and absenteeism tracking in ways they have never been required to do in the past with their local county public health departments.
While the state is doing everything it can to track the spread of the virus, this task becomes much harder when there are multiple school districts to monitor in addition to county health departments. With so many overlapping districts, greater coordination is required to effectively manage the spread of COVID-19.
In this environment of coordinating public agencies, parents need to evaluate what their local school district is proposing. For families that are in a higher risk category with preexisting health conditions, they may also evaluate neighboring districts to see if their health plan could impact their decision.
Districts and families face technology barriers. When we think of educational technology during the pandemic, we think about student access to the internet and devices in the homes. Chicago Public Schools distributed devices to many students in need after transitioning to remote learning in March. Yet many communities do not have broadband access, a concern of the Pritzker administration before the pandemic. In Chicago, 1 one in five children under the age of 18 lack access to broadband citywide, equating to more than 110,000 kids. Families are juggling their technological resources between many individuals, struggling to afford broadband, and using the library instead.
In other areas across the state, in addition to access at the household level, there is no adequate infrastructure for broadband internet. Broadband access grants have been made available to connect communities, but the funds have not been distributed yet, and the needed infrastructure will not be in place soon.
Finally, districts need to develop new processes and potential new data systems to track attendance, follow up on possible infections that could occur for members of the school community, and analyze trends from County health data. Connecting attendance data with health data from County health departments would need to be timely and analysis intensive, and districts need to build that capacity quickly.
Teachers have to fight for a healthy environment. In the discussion about reopening, one underappreciated impact is the health impact teachers and their families. Reopening plan discussions earlier in the summer seemed to neglect many concerns for teachers. Since early plans were announced, teacher and public education employee unions have demanded certain conditions for their members, and have threatened to go on strike if the demands are not met. Many districts have backtracked on in-person or hybrid models of reopening.
The impact on student learning is unclear and complicated. How will remote, in-person, or hybrid reopening approaches impact students? Student learning is a major concern for parents. The possibility of learning loss for students and the challenge of providing adequate learning opportunities in a remote environment impacts students going into the future. But there are also considerations for the learning needs of different students. English language learners are often in need of more support in the regular, in-person classroom, and that need does not change in a remote environment. Students receiving special education services may also have additional barriers to learning remotely.
Parents face making a critical decision. The public is understandably confused and frustrated with all of these considerations. Kids First Chicago asked parents across Chicago to share their concerns about reopening. Districts across the state are surveying parents to understand their needs. But many questions remain unanswered. How do parents evaluate their school district reopening plans? What health risks are associated with sending kids to the classroom? How do I balance my child’s learning needs and emotional well-being with the need to earn a living and support my family?
While local control of education decisions may appeal to folks, we have created an extremely complicated system to deliver education services to our children. Too many school districts and administrative actors create serious challenges in addressing regional and statewide emergencies. Information overload and local politics make the decision facing each family extremely difficult when dealing with multiple government agencies navigating an uncertain environment.
We need a more predictable government. School districts should be rationally aligned with municipal governments. This could make it easier for districts to manage challenges like public health crises, as well as provide more effective services for children. Shared services or consolidation could also net cost savings in addition to providing more effective service. After Illinois recovers from COVID-19, we need action on school district reform for more effective school district governance.