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New normal for reopened Chicago, suburban schools come fall likely to be very different

It won’t be ‘business as usual,’ state officials say, ‘but rather the convergence of a new reality.’ Like one-way hallways and quarantine rooms and daily temperature checks.

Students put their coats in their lockers on the first day back to class at Roswell B. Mason Elementary School on the Southwest Side after last fall’s teachers strike. Students will find school very different come fall.
Students put their coats in their lockers on the first day back to class at Roswell B. Mason Elementary School on the Southwest Side after last fall’s teachers strike. Students will find school very different come fall.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Goodbye, field trips and perfect attendance awards. Hello, one-way hallways, daily temperature checks and quarantine rooms.

That’s some of what we can look ahead to now that Gov. J.B. Pritzker gave his approval last week for schools in Illinois to reopen for in-class instruction this fall, encouraging schools to welcome back kids and staff under detailed state guidelines aimed at keeping them safe.

In Chicago’s new normal, there will be face masks on everyone over 2, bans on handshakes and any other touching, tons of hand-washing and six-feet social distancing requirements in classrooms, on playgrounds and everywhere else at school. Everyone who enters school buildings will get temperature checks, too.

But how that all will work and what the rest of school is going to look like are among the things still to be decided by school districts in the city, suburbs and statewide as schools face the realities of welcoming back to classrooms kids who are likely to be behind academically after learning from home all spring.

“The COVID-19 crisis shook our structures of teaching and learning to the core, but we have now an opportunity to emerge stronger and to make lasting changes in the ways we support, teach, connect with and value each of the 2 million students in our care,” says a 63-page report from the Illinois State Board of Education. “This return to school is not ‘business as usual’ but rather the convergence of a new reality in educational excellence in Illinois.”

Many school districts, including Chicago Public Schools, still are considering whether students will even return in-person for the 2020-21 school year. CPS and suburban districts are going through scenarios for bringing kids back to classrooms all, some or none of the time, with gaps filled in by remote learning.

The 200 Catholic schools in and around Chicago have committed to full-time, face-to-face learning in classrooms come September. Surveys found tuition-paying parents overwhelmingly wanted their children back in classrooms as long as that could be done safely, said Jim Rigg, superintendent of the 70,000 students in the Archdiocese of Chicago’s schools.

Jim Rigg, superintendent of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s schools, is resigning.
Jim Rigg, superintendent of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s schools.
LinkedIn

“We have confidence we can safely restart in the fall,” Rigg said. “Part of the strength of a Catholic education comes from the daily interaction between students and teachers.”

He said that the ways Catholic school communities will worship at Mass and other religious traditions will follow the COVID-19 rules that all churches are supposed to be practicing.

The archdiocese’s schools plan awaits approval by medical experts before its details will be released, according to Rigg.

Among the once-mundane details that are being considered by school systems are things like how kids and teachers will move through hallways in a way to limit the likelihood they’ll infect each other and where plastic shields need to be installed.

State rules, which the state board released Tuesday, recommend keeping students in the same classrooms, rather than having them move from room to room for different classes. Instead, the rules say, teachers are the ones who should be moving.

The rules also say districts need to identify additional substitute teachers to be brought in when their teachers become sick or need to quarantine, and buy extra sets of supplies and equipment — items that students used to be able to share.

Gone are field trips and awards for perfect attendance or any other rewards that “would discourage individuals from staying at home when they are ill.”

Back-to-school nights and orientations are required to be virtual. No more than 50 people can gather — which poses a particular challenge for cafeterias. And nobody should change clothes for P.E.

Whether student-athletes will be able to compete hasn’t been decided.

Schools will need to provide a supervised space where kids suspected of being infected with the coronavirus can be quarantined until their parents pick them up.

Wherever possible, the state rules say, classes and lunch should be moved outdoors — during the 1919 flu pandemic, windows were kept open even in winter, which might help the youngest kids comply with social distancing. Playground equipment can be used, but only if kids can play six feet apart.

And everything will need extra sanitizing.

It’s a lot to consider, especially for CPS, which had problems keeping its schools clean well before the pandemic. And overcrowded schools, mostly in neighborhoods in the southwest and northwest, already had little room to spare.

CPS CEO Janice Jackson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot are shown in October 2019 discussing the state of teacher contract talks.
CPS CEO Janice Jackson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot aren’t ready to say whether Chicago students will be back in classrooms come fall.
Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Neither Mayor Lori Lightfoot nor Janice Jackson, CPS’s chief executive officer, will guarantee that students will return to classrooms. They’ve been working for about two months on plans that incorporate different possibilities for Chicago’s schools this fall.

“It’s our sincere desire to see as many students in school as possible in the fall,” Jackson said last week. “But we have to make sure that we’re planning and that we have multiple scenarios in place to be able to address that.”

CPS plans to release its plans in the next few weeks and then to allow a few more weeks for parents and community members to weigh in before finalizing anything. According to CPS, individual schools will develop their own plans with their Local School Councils.

Schools that can’t accommodate everyone safely and would have kids come in part-time are supposed to prioritize special education and English-learning students who need extra help.

Jesse Sharkey, the Chicago Teachers Union president, said teachers and parents want kids back in classrooms. The union is advocating for a nurse in each school and smaller class sizes so everyone can safely distance.

“Science tells us that this virus spreads by people breathing on each other in an enclosed space for an extended period of time, and that’s an awfully large amount of what we do in school,” he told the Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday.

In the suburbs, Evanston/Skokie School District 65 has assembled a 60-member task force of parents, staff, and community members to plan for four different scenarios and a potential school-calendar change:

  • Remote learning continues for everyone.
  • A hybrid return plan in which schools open for some students.
  • Schools open for all with added hygiene accommodations.
  • Schools open without contact limits.

District 65 officials say they won’t likely know until late July which plan they will implement.

It’s unclear whether most K-12 schools will follow colleges in moving up start dates to squeeze in the whole first term before November, ahead of an expected second wave of the virus.

No matter how different things might look, Rachel Gemo, the principal of St. Benedict Preparatory School on North Leavitt Avenue, said that doesn’t mean it will be worse.

Rachel Gemo, principal of St. Benedict Preparatory School.
Rachel Gemo, principal of St. Benedict Preparatory School.
LinkedIn

“Educators are inherently creative and innovative,” Gemo said. “They know what’s best for kids and student learning. Yes, this is a challenge. It was interesting to see how our teachers — just as across the nation, across the city, across the archdiocese — how they responded to make the best of a situation and continue the learning and continue the things that are important.’’

So masks can be made to be fun, even if they end up part of the school uniform. Hand washing might be accompanied by songs. The paths that kids follow to safely move around classrooms can double as “brain breaks.”

“The magic is still there,” Gemo said. “Kids are resilient and creative by nature. Pair that with educators who want to keep doing the right thing for kids.”

Contributing: Nader Issa, Michael O’Brien