Chicago Public Schools is planning to distribute 100,000 electronic devices for students to use at home as the district begins to implement a remote learning plan ordered by the state that will be in place by mid-April, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools officials announced Monday.
Despite the effort to provide laptops for students who don’t have them, the district’s plan to keep children learning at home includes guidance for both online and non-digital instruction because CPS “cannot close the digital divide overnight,” officials said.
And with the plan not going in effect until April 13, another two weeks from now, the prospect of extended school closures past the currently planned April 21 return is looking increasingly likely, as one alderman forecasted Monday.
Lightfoot said it’s too early to tell whether the rest of the school year will consist of remote learning, but she praised district officials and teachers for their work to ensure that “while our schools remain closed, education in Chicago remains open.”
“For all that we’ve been through over these last few weeks, and it’s been a lot, Chicago’s educators have been working tirelessly to mitigate any loss that might have otherwise occurred during this unprecedented crisis,” Lightfoot said at an afternoon news conference.
About 65,000 devices already being used in schools — including laptops, Chromebooks and iPads — will be distributed to families who need them most. CPS is in the process of purchasing another 37,000 new devices, but officials expect delays and a backlog of computers as districts across the country go after the same resources.
“This will not erase the technology gap that has persisted for years, but we believe that it is an important step forward,” schools chief Janice Jackson said.
Education experts were cautiously optimistic about the plan.
Victoria Trinder, the program coordinator for urban elementary education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said she was impressed that the district is putting an emphasis on learning and equity rather than simply equality.
”It talks about providing resources to places where there are fewer,” Trinder says. “Typically we’ve seen the inverse of that in large urban districts.”
Trinder said she likes that the plan leaves plenty of room for individual educators and schools to decide what’s best for their own students.
Unclear how many students need computers
Jackson said the plan should come close to meeting the district’s rough estimate of how many devices are needed, but CPS officials don’t have an exact number of how many students will still be left without computers. The district said it plans to distribute devices “promptly” and would be in touch with families in the coming days.
It wasn’t clear if all the devices would reach families by the time the district’s remote learning plan goes in effect, and mobile internet hotspots won’t be available through CPS; to get internet service, families will have to go through Comcast or other internet providers that are offering free online access for high-need families. LaTanya McDade, CPS’ chief education officer, said the district will be strategic in making sure families who receive devices also are pursuing free internet access so students and the district get full use of the computers.
The district acknowledged in its 10-page remote learning plan that “every member of the CPS family will have moments of frustration during this transition,” and that “the commitments outlined below are goals we will work together to achieve — not expectations that we will meet on day one.”
CPS’ plan won’t go in effect until mid-April — despite state education officials calling for districts to begin remote learning this week — because the Illinois State Board of Education allowed for districts to use up to five days to prepare and implement their plans. That takes CPS through the end of this week, and the district is then set to go on spring break the following week.
Each school will make its own plan
Using CPS’ guidelines, each of the district’s 640 schools will decide its own plan for how to teach its students. Families will be given their individual school’s plan by April 6, including how to access both digital and non-digital materials, whether it be picking up packets at school, online or other methods.
No matter what each school comes up with, teachers will be expected to be available for four hours per school day, with a maximum of two hours of digital learning. The district’s plan includes guidance for schools to provide both online and offline instructional materials via whatever means possible.
Schools will have to provide students with daily learning materials including a mix of daily assignments, projects, activities and reading, and teachers will monitor student engagement and progress on a weekly basis.
CPS still won’t take daily attendance or log the amount of hours students are actively learning, but the district offered recommendations for how many daily hours students at each grade level should spend engaged with academic materials. And to make sure students with limited access to technology aren’t penalized, scores on assignments will only be counted if they improve a student’s grade in the class.
Still, district officials said in a letter to parents that “students who do not engage in academic work can be issued an incomplete and will be expected to make up incomplete assignments following the remote learning period.”
The district is also easing restrictions on live-video chats between teachers and students, allowing for educators to use Google Meet as a “safe and secure way for teachers to host video sessions with a group of students in real-time.”
English learners should also be provided with as close to their normal instruction as possible, CPS said. And special education students must continue receiving their legally mandated education services. Any meetings with a special education case manager should be conducted over the phone or teleconferencing, if a parent agrees.
Contributing: Fran Spielman