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CPS board president says reopening has to happen eventually to help vulnerable students, acknowledges it will be before ‘100% ... are satisfied that it is safe’

About two dozen special education and preschool parents and teachers spoke in opposition to CPS’ back-to-school plan at Wednesday’s virtual monthly school board meeting.

Chicago’s school board gathers virtually Wednesday for its monthly meeting.
Chicago’s school board gathers virtually Wednesday for its monthly meeting.
Screenshot/Chicago Public Schools

Chicago school board members sought to quell parent and teacher concerns Wednesday about a possible return to in-person learning, stressing that nobody would be brought back to classrooms under dire public health circumstances but emphasizing that the youngest kids and those in special education need a more viable option than remote learning.

Reopening “will take place, and it will take place probably before 100% of you are satisfied that it is safe,” Board President Miguel Del Valle told members of the public. “Because that’s reality. But we are not going to plan to open schools if there’s any indication, particularly from the science, that there is danger to our faculty, to our staff and to our students.”

CPS CEO Janice Jackson reiterated that the district is trying to balance health and safety with the need for all students to have a quality education. She said the push to resume in-person learning stems from families’ worries about the limits of remote classes as well as plummeting enrollment in pre-K and elementary schools that officials called an “educational crisis.”

Though the district made its intention public earlier this month to bring preschoolers and some special education students back to classrooms during the second academic quarter that starts Nov. 9 — and other students potentially in January — Jackson said CPS is working with the city’s public health officials to figure out the best time to do so. A recent rise in cases and test positivity in the city has complicated matters, including setting a hard return date for any group of students.

Forms were sent last week to families and staff to indicate whether they would return. For the families that choose not to send their children back, Jackson indicated for the first time that the district could offer live simultaneous lessons from the classroom. Staff would be required to return unless granted medical leave.

One of two dozen parents and teachers speaking in opposition to a return to schools at Wednesday’s virtual monthly school board meeting was Catherine Henchek, who serves on the Local School Council at Vaughn Occupational, a special education high school on the Northwest Side.

Henchek’s son has epilepsy and said his threshold for seizures would drop if he contracted COVID-19 and had a fever. She was shocked to hear plans for in-person learning announced as cases rise across the city, she said, especially because remote learning has been better than in the spring.

“It’s not the same as in-person learning from before the pandemic,” she said. “But the in-person learning that they’d go back to wouldn’t be the same, either.”

Board member Sendhil Revuluri said he hears the concerns, but argued there’s no practical way to completely eliminate the risk of exposure, and it’s the district’s responsibility to mitigate danger while getting kids back in classrooms as soon as possible.

“The science on COVID is evolving really quickly,” Revuluri said. “The science on kids’ learning and development has been around for decades. We know that being out of school has negative academic, social, emotional, even economic and life effects on kids in the longer term.”

Board member Luisiana Melendez, whose expertise lies in early childhood education, said research is clear that it’s very hard for young kids to learn remotely. Children need an adult sitting with them at home for it to be effective, and that’s not a privilege a lot of families have, she said. At the same time, she recognized there are additional health concerns particularly with special education students.

“I am really awed by the complexity of this issue,” Melendez said.

Del Valle said he sees a “gulf between what we have some people saying” and the steps the district feels it’s taking. He urged CPS officials to do a better job getting the word out about their plans, priorities and timeline, because he believes they have answers to a lot of questions.

“Communication is never perfect,” del Valle said. “But that’s not an excuse for us to say, ‘Well, we have a plan.’ Yes, we do have a plan. But we must continue to look for ways of communicating those plans. People are desperate for details. We have details.”

Del Valle said board members, district administrators and principals “all live in the communities we’re talking about. ... We are in this together.”