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State lawmakers, advocates discuss COVID-19’s impact on education

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - COVID-19 has changed the way many of us live, work, and socialize with others. Many parents know the pandemic has also significantly changed the learning environment for their students. The digital divide and students falling behind while not physically in a classroom are two major concerns for educators.

"We want to emphasize that equity has been the driving value at the State Board of Education, which is why one of our top priorities has been to address the digital divide facing students and even our educators," Dr. Carmen Ayala said during a Senate Education hearing Wednesday.

The ISBE President says COVID-19 magnified this issue for low-income communities, as many districts lacked devices for students. She also noted families could have the proper equipment for learning, but some still struggle with connectivity.

"We received more than $600 million in federal funding through the CARES Act to bolster our education systems in response to and in preparation for meeting the needs of our students during the pandemic," Ayala explained.

More than 99% of that funding addressed digital inequities for Title I schools, according to Ayala. She said $80 million in digital equity grants went towards closing the digital divide in the state's highest-need schools. The state allocated nearly $14 million to help teachers and families understand the new digital learning platform.

"We don't want this to be a back to basics remediation situation because that exacerbates inequities that exist and does not help children actually get caught up to where they need to be," said Jennifer Kirmes, ISBE Executive Director of Teaching and Learning.

Helping students catch up

Meanwhile, advocates and lawmakers say the state needs to consider helping at-risk students and those with IEPs. Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) has seen his own son struggle to catch up during the pandemic.

"This has to be on the front burner for us in the state in my opinion," Manar said. "If we don't provide some path for these students to catch up, it isn't just going to happen on its own. It's not just going to fall out of the sky and happen on its own."

Manar feels lawmakers should create financial pathways or change the school code to give educators better opportunities to help students. At the same time, others touched upon the long-term effects of learning remotely without opportunities to relieve their stress.

"How do we take a look at the additional trauma the kids will have," asked Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood). "I think it's going to be more difficult for teachers to teach because more kids will come back with this trauma-inflicted behavior that they've taken on since they've been home with COVID."

Trying to succeed in a virtual classroom

Advance Illinois President Robin Steans noted this is an incredibly difficult set of circumstances for students to succeed. "Just showing up and logging in is very different. It's so much more challenging for a teacher to be able to understand whether a kid is really engaging material when you're trying to do things in a hybrid fashion or remote," Steans said.

Teachers across the state reported student engagement dropped significantly during the spring semester with remote learning. Steans explained 23% of students weren't engaging in remote learning at all. While there is no comparable analysis to point to for long-term effects, Advance Illinois found studies showing students have significant trauma following natural disruptions such as hurricanes and floods.

"What you see in those events is that kids were, in fact, affected over time. When things got back to normal, they didn't necessarily get back on track," Steans explained. "Kids are being affected, and it will follow them unless we do things that meet that need."

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Mike Miletich

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