CPS reopening to start with pre-K, special ed next month; more students could return in January

The phased-in plan was called “reckless” by the Chicago Teachers Union.

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In this Sept. 3, 2020, file photo, students keep social distance as they walk to their classroom in Highwood, Ill.

CPS is planning a phased-in reopening starting next month.

AP

The largest enrollment drop in over two decades and difficulties remotely teaching students with disabilities spurred a plan to bring preschoolers and some special education students back to school next month, followed by the potential return of other students as soon as January, Chicago Public Schools officials said Friday.

In the meantime, all classes will continue to operate remotely at the start of the second academic quarter in early November with the school system’s youngest students and those in special education cluster programs returning soon after — if all goes according to plan.

Any decision to reopen schools during a pandemic, however, will come amid a concerning resurgence of COVID-19 in Chicago — Illinois recorded its highest single-day case total Friday — and the backdrop of Black and Latino families, who make up 90% of the district, suffering the hardest impact of the virus so far.

While city officials promised they could safely facilitate a partial reopening, the Chicago Teachers Union reiterated its longstanding stance that it remains unsafe to resume in-person teaching under the current public health conditions. A union attorney Friday called the latest plan “ill-timed, reckless and illegal.”

“While we will begin the second quarter learning at home, our goal will be — and it must be — to reopen our school buildings for our most vulnerable students as soon as possible,” schools chief Janice Jackson said at a Friday news conference.

“I’m not throwing in the towel on in-person instruction,” she said. “We’re going to do everything within our power to get our kids back in school, and we’re going to do that safely.”

Families will still have the option of opting out of in-person learning and will be sent a survey Wednesday to be returned by the following week.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot did not attend the news conference to discuss her decision or answer questions.

Arwady: Infection rates among schoolchildren low

Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said she’s confident schools can reopen despite the city experiencing its most concerning health metrics in months. Arwady said “one of the few good news stories of this pandemic” has been low infection rates among schoolchildren — sometimes half the level of their wider communities — in districts and private schools that have already returned to classrooms.

“It is in this context that CDPH offers our full support to the CPS phased plan even as we continue to monitor closely the current rise in COVID-19 cases in Chicago,” the health commissioner said. “I’m a pediatrician. If I thought this plan was dangerous, I obviously would not be supporting it.”

Arwady said earlier this summer that schools would have to remain closed if the seven-day rolling average of total cases rose above 400. When the mayor made the decision Aug. 5 to return to remote learning, the city was averaging 280 cases over a seven-day period. That’s now up to 475. The seven-day test positivity rate was 4.8% at that time and since then has dipped then risen back to the same level.

The Chicago Department of Public Health will continue to monitor several metrics in addition to total cases and test positivity, Arwardy said, including emergency room visits, ventilators in use, patients in intensive care units and deaths.

“I have no intention of letting COVID-19 sort of rage out of control here in Chicago,” she said. “We are monitoring this with concern, and if we need to pull back, we will.”

A new virus tracker published on CPS’ website Friday shows 16 confirmed cases among 14 adults and two students forced temporary pauses to school or CPS central office operations citywide last week. In all, there have been 177 such disruption-causing cases since the start of the pandemic, 69 of which have come since the start of this school year.

Arnie Rivera, the district’s chief operating officer, described millions spent on preparing schools with disinfectants, soap and masks and said all schools are undergoing independent ventilation and air quality checks over the next few weeks.

Testing will be made available to anyone who shows symptoms or had contact with someone infected, and staff have been hired to help with contact tracing, he said. CPS, however, has so far hired only 100 of the 400 additional janitors it said over the summer would be brought in this fall.

A day after the plan was communicated to the district’s 500 principals and reported by the Sun-Times and other news outlets Thursday, CPS hedged its announcement Friday with the caveat that a return to classrooms remains a “goal,” and a final decision will be made closer to the start of the second academic quarter Nov. 9.

Linda Perales describes her special education classroom conditions during a press conference hosted by the Chicago Teachers Union.

Linda Perales describes her special education classroom conditions during a press conference hosted by the Chicago Teachers Union.

Screengrab/Chicago Teachers Union

CTU: Plan made in ‘dark of the night’

CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates told reporters on a Friday call the union is concerned about putting tens of thousands of students back into school communities where the COVID-19 test positivity rate remains above previously stated thresholds.

“We cannot experiment or take lightly the responsibility that we will need to see from our mayor and Chicago Public Schools as reopening plans are hatched,” Davis Gates said. “In fact, you cannot put together a plan in the dark of the night with only a few people that excludes our parents, that excludes our families, that excludes our educators, our practitioners and excludes our union.”

The union has been at the table with CPS since the spring negotiating a safe reopening but has said those discussions have not led to any substantive agreements. Earlier this month, an arbitrator ruled on an unfair labor practice complaint filed by the CTU that CPS has not proven its buildings are safe for any functions that aren’t absolutely necessary. CPS is appealing that decision.

Particularly in special education cluster programs, it’s nearly impossible to practice social distancing, said Linda Perales, who leads a kindergarten through second grade cluster classroom at Corkery Elementary in Little Village that has 11 students.

“Many of my students require hand-over-hand assistance, many of them require assistance with toileting, assistance with feeding,” Perales said at CTU’s press conference. “The needs of my students are so high that we have four special education assistants in our classroom. ... That is putting all of us at risk.”

The one-week person positivity rate in the 60623 zip code stood at 15.1% Friday, the neighborhood’s highest rate since early June.

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