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Remote learning OK, but school in July might be needed to really get kids back on track

Public schools might shut down for the rest of the academic year because of the coronavirus. We’re fine with that, providing mandatory summer school follows once things are safe.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot (left) and Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson on Monday announce remote learning plans for CPS students.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The coronavirus pandemic shows no sign of slowing down here in Illinois. As of Monday, our state had more than 5,000 reported cases of COVID-19, including 73 deaths.

The McCormick Place Convention Center now is being converted into a 3,000-bed field hospital for patients who don’t require intensive care. Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expected this week to extend the state’s stay-at-home order and school closures beyond April 7.

It’s clear with every day’s news that the pandemic is exacting a toll on every aspect of our lives.

So we’re bracing for another drastic development that seems more and more necessary to safeguard public health and save lives: shutting down our public schools for the rest of the academic year.

Other school systems closed

If it comes to that, so be it. The decision would not be unprecedented. Six other states — Kansas, Virginia, Alabama, Oklahoma, Vermont and New Mexico — already have taken that step. California has shut down schools “until further notice.”

We don’t mean to get ahead of developments. Pritzker, to be clear, has given no indication that he plans to order a shutdown and have schools rely solely on remote learning to teach students for the rest of the year.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, too, on Monday flatly denied a claim by an alderman who told the Chicago Sun-Times that the mayor indicated during a briefing that children would not return to classes this year.

But then there was CPS CEO Janice Jackson, who assured parents that the district’s remote learning plan would keep students on track “no matter how long this closure endures.”

We have to believe — it’s the only responsible approach — that all relevant state and local officials are weighing the advice of health experts and preparing for every possibility as the pandemic grows.

Ending pandemic comes first

Shutting down schools and keeping them closed long-term, the experts have made clear, is one of the most effective ways to control the spread of the virus. Most countries’ plans for pandemics include plans for shutting down schools.

Yes, doing so would be a huge blow to students, even with an ambitious launching of remote learning. CPS is planning to distribute 100,000 Chromebooks, laptops and iPads to help make sure children have access to online lessons. CPS teachers will have to be available for four hours every school day — online and by phone — to help students and families with lessons.

We urge parents and teachers to pull together so children stay on track and don’t lose too much educational ground. If schools end up shuttered for the rest of the school year, remote learning can help mitigate the educational damage that could be especially devastating for low-income children.

Everybody get on board

But in the end, there is no real substitute for face-to-face interaction between children and trusted teachers. Whether that happens now — or in July.

If the public schools eventually are shuttered for the scheduled academic year, we urge CPS to require make-up classes this summer. Once health experts deem it is safe, there’s no good argument against mandatory summer school. CPS and parents — and the Chicago Teachers Union — must do whatever it takes to get school kids back on track.

In an order issued by Pritzker on Friday, the governor opened the door to make-up summer school across the state and suggested the issue of pay could be worked out.

“Nothing in this executive order,” the governor stated, “shall prohibit school employees from receiving compensation, on the basis of their regular contracts, for additional time worked as a result of an extension of the school term.”

We urge everybody — parents and teachers — to get on board and put kids first.

That means remote learning for now and, quite possibly, mandatory summer school later.

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