Chicago’s responsible plan to get kids back in school

A cautious mix of vital in-classroom teaching and remote learning is Chicago’s best bet to get kids back on track — and it has health officials’ seal of approval.

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One way to help maintain social distance at schools is to convert to one-way hallways. In this file photo from 2018, children walk down the main hallway at Orozco Fine Arts & Sciences Elementary School in Pilsen.

One way to help maintain social distance at schools is to convert to one-way hallways. In this file photo from 2018, children walk down the main hallway at Orozco Fine Arts & Sciences Elementary School in Pilsen.

| Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

With new cases of COVID-19 on the uptick in Chicago, we understand why many parents and teachers are opposed to any reopening of the public schools this fall.

After several months during which COVID-19 cases fell sharply in Chicago and Illinois thanks to the statewide lockdown, too many of us have gotten lax about wearing masks, social distancing and other safety measures. Predictably, case numbers are creeping back up.

All the same, this editorial board strongly believes, as we have written before, that resuming in-classroom learning is essential. Chicago must do everything possible to get students, especially young children and low-income students, safely back on track with their education after months of sub-par remote learning.

We support a tentative CPS plan, presented on Friday, for a partial reopening of the schools. We can’t agree with the position of the Chicago Teachers Union, which aims to keep the schools closed completely and continue with only remote learning.

Remote learning was a disaster the first time around.

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At the same time, allow us to say this loud and clear:

We by no means support the sort of school reopening plan — or non-plan — that President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have been pushing for in the last week. If they had it their way, every school in the country would throw open its doors five days a week, starting immediately, blithely endangering the health of children and teachers.

Trump and DeVos have provided no guidance for reopening schools, though they are pushing it even for states like Alabama and Florida, where COVID-19 is cranking up hard.

Education matters, but lives matter more.

To the credit of CPS, Chicago’s plan strikes a cautious compromise, putting health concerns first by limiting in-school learning and building in abundant safety protocols.

“This has been uncharted territory for all of us,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Friday when she and other CPS and city officials unveiled the plan. “We must do for our children and our schools everything possible to mitigate the risk” of reopening.

Under the school district’s plan, most students in kindergarten through 10th grade will attend school two days a week and engage in remote learning the remaining three days. Parents, should they choose, will be able to opt for all-remote learning. High school juniors and seniors will continue with remote learning full-time, to lessen crowding in high schools.

The district also will provide masks for every student and teacher, require daily temperature checks and hire 400 additional janitors to ensure that buildings are thoroughly cleaned.

These are precisely the kind of safety measures, we should note, that most teachers who responded to a recent CTU survey said they wanted to see before returning to school.

In giving the plan the green light, the city’s top public health expert, Alison Arwady, made it clear she’s prepared to tell the city to put on the brakes if necessary. She also warned that the spread of COVID-19 is “inevitable.”

“If one month, two months, six months from now, our local data worsens to a point where we cannot support in-classroom learning, we won’t hesitate to make that tough recommendation,” Arwady said Friday.

The value of in-school education goes beyond text books. Schools bring caring adults into the lives of children, Arwady said. They provide meals and a chance to learn social and emotional skills that are “not easily replicated online.”

Full remote learning, as the CTU proposes, would deprive children of these educational and social benefits. And as a recent National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine report makes clear, remote learning has been a bust for younger students.

“Young children in particular will be impacted by not having in-person learning and may suffer long-term academic consequences if they fall behind as a result,” the Academies wrote. “In grades K-3, children are still developing the skills to regulate their own behavior, emotions, and attention, and therefore struggle with distance learning,”

Here in Chicago, the district’s own data has revealed the failures of remote learning. Forty percent of students last spring logged on fewer than three days a week to the digital learning platform; 24% didn’t log on at all. And first- and second-graders were among those least likely to log on consistently.

Chicago should be encouraged by the experiences of other countries, where schools have reopened without large new outbreaks of COVID-19. In Finland, for instance, researchers found no evidence of the coronavirus spreading among children under age 16 when schools reopened in May after shutting down in March.

The caveat, of course, is that these other countries, in Europe and Asia, have done a better job of containing the virus to begin with.

All the more reason, then, for Chicagoans to redouble their efforts against COVID-19.

Wear the mask. Wash your hands. Skip the party, even if you haven’t seen your friends for months.

Until there’s a vaccine, there will never be a zero risk of contracting COVID-19 — at school or anywhere else. And while studies strongly suggest that young children are more resistant to the disease than adults, the science is new and inconclusive.

It’s on all of us to minimize the risk. For our kids’ sake and our own.

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