When will Chicago’s schools reopen? When Chicago parents think it’s safe

And right now, parents just are not there. Fully 41% of elementary school parents and 38% of high school parents say they would refuse to send their kids back to school right now.

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Protesters hold signs against a now-scuttled plan to reopen Chicago Public Schools in September. The protest was staged by the Chicago Teachers Union on Monday.

Protesters hold signs against a now-scuttled plan to reopen Chicago Public Schools in September. The protest was staged by the Chicago Teachers Union on Monday.

Kamil Krzaczynski /AFP via Getty Images

Chicago kids aren’t going back to school, not in brick-and-mortar school buildings, until enough parents think it’s safe.

It’s as simple as that.

And right now, parents just are not there.

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Nothing else — no technological challenges, COVID-19 data or reluctance on the part of teachers — better explains why the Chicago Public Schools on Wednesday abandoned plans for a hybrid reopening of the schools in September. In all, 41% of elementary school parents and 38% of high school parents, according to a CPS survey, said they would refuse to send their children back to school that soon.

Remote learning, with no in-class instruction at all, will continue at least until November — when all the dynamics of this difficult decision are sure to play out again. Chicago’s best hope then is that the daily numbers of new COVID-19 cases will be down, safety measures for kids in classrooms will be more trusted, and the Chicago Teachers Union will get on board with at least a partial reopening.

Blame the virus

In the meantime, no, this is not great.

No one can have much confidence in the quality of remote learning. We saw last spring how second-rate it can be.

But we also appreciate — and we want to stress this — the positions being taken by everybody involved.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the leadership of CPS had no choice but to back off hybrid instruction, which would have been part online and part in classrooms. Local COVID-case numbers have been on the rise and parents, as we say, are wary.

We understand why teachers, especially those who are older, are reluctant to risk their physical safety. And they are not, as some CTU critics have insisted, “essential workers” during the pandemic in the same way as police officers, doctors and nurses.

As for those reluctant parents? Moms and dads will always put their kids’ safety first.

A growing number of suburban Chicago districts, for the exact same reasons, are making the same move.

“In a perfect world, students would be in school more, not less,” CEO Janice Jackson said at a press conference on Wednesday. “We remain committed to getting kids back in school as quickly as possible. I hope the health conditions allow us to do that on November 6.”

COVID-19 creeping back

As Chicago Public Health Commissioner Alison Arwady explained, the city is now in a “yellow zone” of caution when it comes to levels of COVID-19, seeing more than 200 new cases a day although fewer than 400. The city’s COVID-19 dashboard shows a 7-day average of 277 new cases per day plus a test positivity rate of 4.8%.

Should the city succeed in pushing that number below 200, Arwady said, she would urge that the schools be fully reopened. “I would have zero concerns about reopening,” she said.

But on a number of days in recent weeks, the daily new count in Chicago has approached 400, the threshold of a more dangerous zone. Many states are attempting to bar entry for people from other states that have per-capita COVID-19 rates that high.

A challenge for teachers

Chicago has a lot of work to do to make remote learning work better, and much of the pressure will be on CPS teachers. We believe they are at least partially the reason Lightfoot decided this week, rather than wait until later this month, to stick solely with remote learning for now, though the mayor denies that. There’s no way the mayor failed to factor in the threat of a teachers’ strike.

So now Chicago will be looking to those CPS teachers to lead the way in making remote learning really work.

For its part, the administration of CPS has announced a number of much-needed remote-learning improvements, including daily virtual classes, small-group instruction and more office hours for teachers to be available for students. Letter grades will be the norm again. Attendance will be monitored.

Making up for lost time

We urge CPS and CTU to begin planning ways now to help kids down the road make up for lost learning during the pandemic. Several recent studies have estimated that the average student has already fallen months behind in their education because of remote learning during these times. For Black and Hispanic children, the learning loss is likely worse, the studies found.

The longer children in Chicago, as well as across the country, don’t get traditional in-class instruction, the worse it will be for them. Chicago should be looking at a longer school year to help kids catch up. There could be individual learning plans that reflect each child’s increased needs.

As for right now, we encourage parents to get deeply involved in their child’s remote learning, as much as their work schedules permit. CPS is providing free internet and digital devices for families that qualify financially. More than ever, parents must be the partners of their children’s teachers.

And the rest of us can do our part by wearing masks, keeping that six feet of social distancing and avoiding crowds.

The best thing we can do for our children is slow the spread of COVID-19, making it possible for city and suburban schools to open sooner, fully and safely.

“Turn the curve the other way,” Arwady said. “We’ve done it before. We can do it again.”

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