Chicago Public Schools officials said Wednesday they hope to reopen high schools this spring for the first time during the pandemic, and will begin discussions with the Chicago Teachers Union over how and when to do so.
The logistics behind the resumption of in-person learning for older children would appear more complex than that of elementary students because of higher classroom-to-classroom mobility and the greater level of independence to which those students are accustomed.
But with a reopening framework established in a K-8 plan that is seeing thousands of students return over the next two weeks, district and union leaders expressed optimism the path back to classrooms for the 74,000 students in non-charter high schools won’t be as painful. They’ll look to juggle competing sets of parent priorities, but the school board president made clear Wednesday it would be “unacceptable” for high schools to stay closed this year.
“We know that many high school students and families are eager to learn more about their return to in-person instruction, and it is our goal to provide them with a safe, in-person option this school year,” schools chief Janice Jackson said at Wednesday’s virtual monthly school board meeting.
“Last week, we formally reached out to CTU leadership to begin this process. We expect to begin meeting with CTU later this week so that we can work towards a safe return that meets the needs of all of our students and families.”
Jackson added that public health officials “have endorsed in-person learning for high school students and our families are counting on us to establish a plan that will safely support their needs.”
District officials said they’re feeling an urgency to reopen high schools because of pronounced drops in attendance and grades among older children during the pandemic.
A team of principals has been meeting since December to brainstorm what that return would look like. Those efforts will be merged with the CTU moving forward through a newly created high school reopening task force.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey said the past few months’ negotiations “felt in many ways was inhumane” for all involved in or impacted by the process, “and we need to do better — we need to do it differently next time — starting with high school.”
“I think the board felt the union was unreasonable, and the issue for you became about control, the ability to control schools,” Sharkey said. “I know that we felt you ignored us until we were actually facing the threat of a strike.
“We’re looking forward to ... those meetings starting. We’ve been doing some work internally to get our team together on this. And we look forward to that process. We will do better in that process coming up.”
Bogdana Chkoumbova, CPS’ chief of school management, said there are unique challenges with high schools, such as how to implement smaller student pods — like those created in elementary schools — when older students have different subjects in different classrooms. High schools have much more complex schedules and larger student populations, raising social distancing problems. And some career and technical programs need hands-on work.
“There are a lot of complexities to be considered,” Chkoumbova said.
District labor relations chief Kaitlyn Girard said the process with CTU will look different than negotiations in 2019 or over the past few months. Each side will lay out its priorities and goals, she said, and they’ll work collaboratively to develop a plan that addresses each group’s concerns.
Several parents addressed high school reopening at the board meeting, urging the district and union to show less animosity toward each other and to involve parents in discussions.
Carol Deely, a mother of a CPS junior who is a diverse learner, said she feels “politics have taken over school reopening instead of data, science and the mission of this board.”
“As parents of high schoolers, there are less than 80 days of school remaining this year. There is not time for 80-plus meetings again between CPS and the CTU,” she said. “We have children experiencing anxiety, depression, weight gain and even more serious symptoms that signal remote learning is not for everyone.”
Another set of parents with the group Raise Your Hand also called for more family engagement, but they stressed a desire for improved remote learning.
Remote learning hubs opening
To start the process of easing high schools back to classrooms, CPS said it would open three learning hubs where 60 students each at Richards Career Academy and Corliss High School and 50 students at Wells Community Academy could go to work on their remote learning. Those schools will be staffed by community organizations.
Board President Miguel del Valle said he believes both CPS and CTU are committed to a safe, comprehensive high school plan as soon as possible. He pushed for negotiations to be “put on a much faster track” this time around.
“Just the thought of us reaching the end of the school year with freshmen that do not step foot in a high school building, and with seniors in their last year that were not given an opportunity to be in the school that they’re graduating from, that’s totally unacceptable,” he said.
“Unlike the negotiations that took place with CTU, because we have learned so much — CPS learned and CTU learned — we are in a much stronger, better position now to come to an agreement that will ensure high school students are served before the end of the school year.”