On March 9, 2021, ISBE and IDPH released Revised Public Health Guidance for Public Schools, Part 4 – Transition Joint Guidance. The Joint Guidance makes important updates to the mitigation strategies and requirements for the safe return to in-person instruction. The updated Joint Guidance document prevails in the event of conflict with previous documents. ISBE and IDPH also released updated FAQs (ISBE FAQ; IDPH FAQ) and an updated Exclusion Decision Tree.

Return to In-Person Instruction

The Joint Guidance supports the return to in-person instruction as soon as practicable in every Illinois community. This raises the question of whether school districts must continue to offer remote learning to students. The Joint Guidance and the ISBE FAQ make clear that school districts must continue to offer the option of remote instruction to students (1) who are at increased risk of severe illness, (2) who have special health care needs, or (3) who live with people at increased risk.

ISBE recommends that school districts request and obtain information, such as a physician’s note, documenting the medical condition for any student who is not able to participate in in-person learning and requests remote instruction for one of the three reasons stated above. If you have questions regarding requesting and reviewing such documentation from families, please contact your legal counsel. We have available a model physician certification form for remote instruction.

While ISBE’s new position in the Joint Guidance regarding students who must be offered remote instruction is consistent with recently updated CDC guidance, it does mark a change in ISBE’s previous position that school districts are required to offer remote instruction to all students during the 2020-2021 school year. Effective immediately, remote instruction now must be offered only to students, as supported by medical documentation, who are at increased risk of severe illness, who have special health care needs, or who live with people at increased risk.

However, the Joint Guidance confirms that districts may choose to continue offering remote learning for all students. If a district chooses to discontinue remote education for students who are not at increased risk of severe illness, who do not have special health care needs, or who do not live with people at increased risk, the district must provide sufficient time and support for families to make plans for in-person instruction, including ensuring that students transferring to in-person instruction from remote education have had an opportunity to obtain required health examinations and immunizations if not already compliant.

The Joint Guidance also directs that in-person instruction should be prioritized over extracurricular activities, including sports and school events, to minimize risk of transmission in schools and protect in-person learning.

IDPH Health and Safety Requirements

Below is a summary of updated and new IDPH health and safety requirements as outlined in the Joint Guidance.

  1. Face Masks
    • Requires universal and correct use of appropriate PPE, including face masks
      • Exemption still available for individuals who are younger than 2 years of age, those who have trouble breathing, or those who are unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the face mask without assistance
    • Provides when face masks can be removed (e.g., eating, children napping, staff alone in classroom or office with door closed, outdoors and physical distancing of six feet can be maintained)
    • Face shields are allowable where other methods of protection are not available or appropriate
    • Recommends school districts update policies to require wearing a face mask while on school grounds and handle violations in the same manner as other policy violations
    • Allows “gaiters” where there are two layers of fabric
  1. Social Distancing
    • Requires social distancing be observed, as much as possible
    • Capacity limits for in-person learning and associated activities (e.g., in classrooms, gyms, cafeterias, and multipurpose rooms) are now determined by the space’s ability to accommodate social distancing—not a set capacity limit number or percentage
      • For in-person learning, this is defined as three to six feet for students and fully vaccinated staff, with six feet being safest; but schools can operate at no less than three feet in order to provide in-person learning
      • Strict adherence to six feet social distancing must be maintained and monitored by school staff when face masks are removed in limited situations
      • Bus capacity remains at no more than 50 people per bus
    • Cafeteria/Eating: Ensure that all individuals maintain social distancing of at least six feet when face masks are removed for eating, and six to no less than three feet when face masks can be worn during the process of serving food, disposal, and leaving the cafeteria
    • Unvaccinated adults should maintain six feet social distance as much as possible
    • Decisions regarding whether to host safe and socially-distanced events outside of school, such as open houses, registration, prom, graduation ceremonies, and other extracurricular events, will remain at the discretion of local school boards and superintendents, in consultation with local public health departments
      • Outdoor events must follow Phase 4: Outdoor Seated Spectator Events guidelines
      • Indoor events must follow Phase 4: Meetings and Social Events guidelines
    1. Contact Tracing & Symptom Screening
    • Requires contact tracing in combination with isolation of those with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 and quarantine of close contacts, in collaboration with the local health department
      • Close contact continues to be defined as being within six feet (with or without a face mask) of a confirmed case of COVID-19 for a cumulative time period of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period during the infectious period, and not fully vaccinated
      • The IDPH FAQ includes that higher-risk close contacts, including unmasked lunchroom companions, high-and medium-risk contact sports teammates and opponents, and music-class participants may be assessed for contact less than 15 minutes, as determined by local health departments
    • Districts should require self-certification and verification for all staff, students, and visitors prior to entering school buildings; however, IDPH and the CDC no longer recommend screenings upon arrival on the school grounds, but schools may continue this practice if preferred
    • Schools should institute a tracking process to maintain ongoing monitoring of individuals excluded from school because they have COVID-19-like symptoms, have been diagnosed with COVID-19, or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 and are in quarantine
    • Local health departments may have additional requirements for travelers and should be consulted with any questions about travel restrictions. Districts are encouraged to request testing and quarantine from any students returning from travel
  1. Facilities
    • Requires an increase in school-wide cleaning and disinfection, maintenance of healthy environments, and promotion and adherence to handwashing and respiratory etiquette
    • Cafeterias: Districts must consider the number of students and adults in the cafeteria during each breakfast and lunch period and ensure that all individuals maintain social distancing of at least six feet when eating, and three to six feet and masked during the process of serving food, disposal, and leaving the cafeteria
      • If possible, tables should be forward facing with students sitting facing the same direction
      • Students should have assigned seats and sit with the same group each day
      • Buffets, salad bars, and the sharing of food and utensils should be prohibited
      • If possible, consider delivering meals to classrooms where social distancing of six feet can be accommodated, or having students eat outdoors while ensuring social distancing is implemented
    • PE/Gymnasiums/Pools: Activities must allow for six feet distance between students as much as possible; face masks must be worn at all times; schools with pools must follow IDPH guidance on swimming facilities
    • Playgrounds: Playground equipment that is to be used should be monitored, and the number of students using each piece of equipment should be limited
    • Field Trips: Decisions regarding whether to sponsor field trips will remain at the discretion of local school boards and superintendents, in consultation with local departments of public health

Contact an HLERK attorney with questions about the Joint Guidance and returning to in-person instruction.

Sources:

ISBE/IDPH Revised Public Health Guidance for Public Schools, Part 4 – Transition Joint Guidance, March 2021

ISBE FAQ to Revised Public Health Guidance for Public Schools, Part 4 – Transition Joint Guidance (updated March 11, 2021)

IDPH FAQ for Schools (updated March 16, 2021)

IDPH Exclusion Decision Tree (updated March 15, 2021)