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New report shows how COVID has altered the trajectory of Illinois students' education

We're about to enter the fourth school year of the pandemic. Data is emerging not just about how COVID-19 is impacting students now, but how the pandemic has altered the trajectory of their education experience. WNIJ's Peter Medlin spoke with Robin Steans of Advance Illinois about their new report "The State We're In: A Look at the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Education In Illinois,” covering everything from academics to mental health...

Robin Stains, president of Advance Illinois (RS): “Even in the teeth of the worst set of circumstances that our schools, our teachers, our counselors, our families have ever had to deal with students reported they felt more supportive. And I think that's incredible.”

Peter Medlin, WNIJ education reporter (PM): “Was there anything in the report that surprised you?”

RS: “We knew enrollment had taken a serious hit. I don't think we fully appreciated just how serious that decline was, even in those early grades and community colleges. I think we were concerned that those numbers are not bouncing back. And I think the other thing we weren't sure about is the chronic absenteeism. We're concerned that those numbers went up. We're concerned that they particularly went up for students of color or students from low-income households, because chronic absenteeism is a real strong predictor of later educational success.”

PM: “Right. Enrollment in K-12 schools has been declining, but during the pandemic only accelerated. I think that some people might immediately think ‘Okay, they’re going to private schools, or they're being homeschooled,’ and it turns out with the data, that's not necessarily the case?”

RS: “Yeah, and that is probably the other surprising finding here that's worth going into. Private school enrollment is also down. It's possible that students were going to homeschooling. The truth is, we don't do a good job bringing all that data together as a state. What was also interesting, and a little bit of a surprise, is who left the K-12 system. In the past, we've seen bigger drops in urban areas. That wasn't the case here, the biggest drops were in rural areas, and it was among white students.”

PM: “I really want to dive into this idea of the digital divide: to make access to technology, digital devices internet more equitable. Did we make any significant progress when it comes to closing that digital divide?

RS: I think this is actually another place where state and local leaders deserve a lot of credit; people using local resources, creative opportunities to create hotspots, as well as federal funds. You did, you saw a significant improvement in the percent of kids who had access to what they needed to take advantage of remote learning.”

PM: “So, overall, everything improved, but the gaps still remain?”

RS: “The gaps remain. There were too many kids, somewhere between 20 and 30%, who did not have reliable access. And that was not evenly distributed. So, it was more likely that if you were from a low-income household, students of color were less likely to have access to what they needed. Those same populations were also more likely to be in remote learning for a greater period of time during the pandemic.”

PM: “And I think it brings a lot of nuance to this idea of remote learning, if it helped some students, if it didn't help some students. It really depends on -- like almost everything in education -- who you are and where you're at.”

RS: “I think we're going to be learning about what this experience really was and how it played out for folks over a long period of time. You know, I don't think you can say that remote learning didn't have some upsides for some of our students, and that there was some benefit. The reality is that the State Board of Education partnered with the Illinois Workforce and Education Research Collaborative. They went on to look and see, ‘Is there a relationship between how much time you spent in person versus remote and your academic outcomes at the end of this past year?’ And the answer was there was. The students who spent more time remote were more academically affected than students who spent more time in person.

You know, what's hard about that this became a very controversial subject. And I want to be able to talk about it without that controversy, because I don't think it has to do with whether that was the right decision or the wrong decision. I think different communities were dealing with different levels of intensity of COVID health issues. I think it's relevant not to look backwards, but to look forward and say, ‘If we know that it made a difference, we need to understand that’ so we can make sure that we are getting students the supports that they need, teachers the planning time and resources that they need to deal with a much different set of circumstances than they've ever dealt with before. So, I just think we need to be honest with ourselves about what happened so that we can do what we need to do as we look ahead.”

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity*

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.