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Pritzker, education advocates release resource guide to help districts support students, teachers

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Many parents and teachers know students struggled to meet the challenge of learning during a pandemic. The Pritzker administration hopes $7 billion in federal funding can help support kids returning to a "normal" classroom setting.

This funding comes from the American Rescue Plan and the stimulus package approved by Congress in December. Higher education institutions will receive $1.3 billion from the third round of federal aid. Illinois will then have a total of $2.5 billion from the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.

Illinois education leaders worked with the P-20 Council to create a Learning Renewal Resource Guide to help school districts decide how to best use the relief funds. The 184-page document covers academic and behavioral resources. Those are key areas the administration wants schools to address due to the drastic impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on students.

"This living document serves as a starting point to our ongoing conversations about how to best meet students and educators where they are," Gov. JB Pritzker said during a press conference Wednesday.

Pritzker explained resources like tutoring, extended hours, and intensive mental health services are expensive programs that could be tough to fund during a normal year.

"But this is not a normal year," Pritzker said. "These federal resources make it possible for districts to make significant investments that were otherwise out of reach. So, it's essential that we take full advantage of this moment for our children."

Trauma-informed support

Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton said many students were living with anxiety and uncertainty before the pandemic. Stratton said she's glad the resource guide focuses on the whole child, including resources to help the most vulnerable students receive trauma-informed support.

"Students have lived with the anxiety of sick loved ones and are grieving the loss of family members," Stratton said. "They have experienced economic upheaval in their families, some of them experiencing food insecurity perhaps for the first time. Add to this the civil unrest and response to the racial injustice. They're wondering why everyone does not have full access to equal justice under the law."

The Illinois State Board of Education has encouraged superintendents to consider the top three to five challenges their school districts face and focus on strategies that align with those needs. ISBE Superintendent Carmen Ayala stressed Illinois won't use a one-size-fits-all approach.

"What works for a rural district may not work for a suburban or an urban district and vice versa. We share the same destination of learning renewal," Ayala said. "But, the road is going to look different for everyone."

Data: Steep declines in enrollment

New data show the state had an estimated drop in enrollment of 35,822 students or 1.9% of the prior year's enrolled students. Experts from Advance Illinois say that represents nearly twice what Illinois expected the decline to be.

"Kindergarten through third grade saw the steepest declines by far, as much as 20-50% in some areas, which is especially concerning in light of how important those early years are for children's development," said Melissa Figueira, Senior Policy Associate for Advance Illinois.

Figueira noted post-secondary enrollment also dropped by over 5%. She explained that was a more significant decline than the national average. That's why the policy organization says recovery for students will take years. Figueira said school leaders should treat that process as a marathon instead of a sprint.

The administration said this renewal resource guide could change to adapt to new needs for students over time. This guide was developed through a collaborative effort with ISBE, the Illinois Board of Higher Education, Illinois Community College Board, Illinois Student Assistance Commission, and the Governor's Office of Early Childhood Development. Advance Illinois and A Better Chicago also supported the effort.

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Mike Miletich

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