SPRINGFIELD – There was general agreement at the Illinois Senate Education Committee meeting Jan. 29 that the definition of a “school day” is changing, but the committee voted unanimously to reinstate an old definition of the term – at least temporarily.
If the bill, which passed on a 16-0 bipartisan vote, becomes law this session, it would reinstate a requirement of five hours of direct supervision by a teacher in order for a day to be considered an instruction day.
Opponents of the mandate said it would limit flexibility for digital snow day alternatives and other opportunities such as apprenticeships or programs for students that have trouble in a classroom environment.
State Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant (D-Shorewood), the bill’s lead sponsor and Education Committee Chair, said she understood that more flexibility is needed for school districts and was committed to working toward it. But she warned of the “wild, wild west” created by the repeal of the five-hour mandate.
“Right now a district could choose to have four days of school in a year,” she said.
Illinois Education Association lobbyist Sean Denney, a proponent of the bill who represents Illinois teachers, said a trailer bill to last year’s education funding overhaul repealed the five-hour mandate, and it was rolled out “without real oversight.”
Denney said teachers unions such as the IEA and Illinois Federation of Teachers need the bill to move forward as a negotiating point for future discussions about flexibility.
Representatives of the Illinois State Board of Education, the Large Unit District Association and other public education advocacy groups were joined by Donn Mendoza, superintendent of Round Lake School District 116, in speaking against the bill.
The groups said they had concerns that any step backward could tie up the negotiation process indefinitely, and the bill’s effective immediately clause would cause confusion for districts this year.
Mendoza said his district used the flexibility of a state waiver to offer new e-learning capabilities and other innovative programs.
“I understand the request and the idea of having a minimum, but our position is learning shouldn’t be tied to seat time,” he said. “The one thing I’m worried about is we will lose the ability to take these next steps.”
Kaneland School District 302 Board of Education approved two e-learning days to the 2019-2020 calendar at its meeting on Jan. 29. The two days, which are scheduled for Nov. 26, 2019 and Feb. 28 2020, are two days that students already are off from school.
Because the district only had 172 school days each year, administrators wanted to find a way to get to the state-mandated 176 days without adding more days to the end of the year. Students will be able to complete lessons and assignments from home, which will count as an instructional day.
Todd Leden, superintendent of Kaneland District 302, said that because half-days are not an option for the district, he thinks adding e-learning days are a good way to get to 176 school days.
Leden said that the district's goal is to give every student in grades 4 through 12 a Chromebook by the fall that they can use at home for the e-learning days. Students in grades K through 3 will be given paper packets to work on at home. The school board has yet to approve that proposal.
"I think this will benefit students. These two e-learning days will provide opportunities for students to do additional work with regards to personalized learning," he said. "We're not reducing student-teacher interaction days. We're following the law but the change [to get to 176 days] isn't too drastic from what we have now."
Leden said that having some e-learning days can give districts "flexibility," but doesn't see K through 12 education moving to all e-learning days, like some college programs and classes.
"At this point, [K-12] students greatly benefit from time in front of teachers," he said.
Some statewide teachers unions fear the absence of the five-hour mandate will give districts uneven footing in negotiations with school boards.
While there is no immediate clarity as to how long it will take for the bill reinstating the mandate to clear the legislative process, both sides agreed to start negotiations on greater flexibility as soon as possible.
News Editor Aimee Barrows contributed to this story.