Nearly 80,000 Chicago Public Schools students plan to return to classrooms once schools reopen in the new year, accounting for 37% of K-8, preschool and special education cluster program students who will initially be eligible for in-person learning, according to data released by the district Wednesday.
Matching a trend seen in other large urban school systems that have already resumed some in-person instruction, a disproportionate number of those CPS families that opted to send their children back to schools were white, while families of color were more likely to decline the opportunity to return, CPS data shows.
That reality raises questions about the argument that has been made for weeks by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS officials that reopening schools will help reduce racial inequity gaps caused by remote learning — a belief the district repeated at Wednesday’s virtual Board of Education meeting.
“While we have continued to refine and improve upon the online learning experience, online learning has been a significant struggle for many of our working families,” LaTanya McDade, CPS’ education chief, told the board. “Providing our families with a safe, in-person learning option is simply put an issue of equity, which we continue to say, and we look forward to bringing our students back.”
The 77,000 children are out of 191,000 elementary school students who were eligible to return Feb. 1, and 16,900 kids who are in pre-K or have complex disabilities that could have come back Jan. 11. The actual number of students who return could end up lower because families who opted in have the option of changing their minds after their initial indications were due last week. Those who decided to stay home are required to do so until April.
Of the students who said they might return, 23.4% are white, 30.2% are Black, 38.9% are Latino and 4.4% are Asian American. The racial demographics of students who were eligible to return were 12.9% white, 33.2% Black, 46.7% Latino and 5% Asian American.
The starkest comparison comes in looking at the share of each racial group that decided to return: About one-third of Black, Latino and Asian American families are sending their kids back to classrooms, while two-thirds of white families are going back.
There were also disproportionately low numbers of English learnings and students from low-income families who indicated they would resume in-person learning. The share of homeless students and those in special education who opted to return matched their share of eligible students — but homeless families were hardest to reach, as almost a third didn’t respond to the survey and were automatically assigned to remain in remote learning.
Union: ‘All options are on the table’
Though there remains no doubt in CPS officials’ minds that they’ll reopen their buildings in the new year, in-classroom education relies on teachers being there — something that isn’t a guarantee right now.
“Our union will have to have an internal discussion about what to do next if we can’t reach agreements on how to make our schools safe for everyone,” Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey told the school board Wednesday. “When we have those discussions, all options are going to be on the table.”
The union has said it doesn’t trust CPS to implement the protocols it’s promising and doesn’t agree with the fact that no specific metric tied to the number of COVID cases in the community or test positivity rate has been identified as a threshold for reopening. Those disputes are “going to make our union campaign in a way which is going to have very real consequences in this whole city,” he said.
The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board is due to issue a ruling at a hearing Thursday morning over whether the CTU will be granted an injunction delaying CPS’ reopening date until the two sides reach agreements on the union’s demands. If the CTU’s case is successful, the district’s return would likely be set back for weeks. The union and district have met 43 times since June to discuss reopening plans, but little has been accomplished.
CPS health chief Kenneth Fox said data around the country and in Illinois has shown that schools “are rarely a source of COVID-19 transmission” as long as proper mitigation protocols are in place. CPS has already purchased 1.2 million cloth face coverings that are ready in school buildings for students and staff, and portable ventilation units are being deployed (with some already in place) to classrooms in every school, officials said.
“Now we know from studies across the globe that no correlation has been shown between reopening of schools and community spread of the virus,” Fox said. “We did not know it would work out that way, but now we do.”
CPS is launching an series of informational discussions called “Ask the Expert” in which district officials will speak on several key facets of reopening, such as health and safety and child development. Those will be held on CPS’ social media channels every Thursday starting this week through Jan. 21.
CPS CEO Janice Jackson said teachers will also be offered training on simultaneous teaching, which will require teachers to educate students in their classrooms and those who are still remote at the same time. Officials said teachers won’t be asked to livestream their entire school day to students who are remote, but will be required to provide 150 minutes per day of live online instruction to those children.
Those daily instruction schedules and safety protocols will be uniform across the district, but principals will be given flexibility on other decisions like teacher assignments, which are likely to change for many students. Final classroom assignments will be given to preschool and special ed cluster families this Friday, and to elementary families Jan. 18.
“I know that this will be a complicated process and that maybe the first two weeks will be complicated just like they are during any school year,” schools chief Janice Jackson said. “But I know that after a while we will get our sea legs and be able to do this safely and ensure that our kids get the education that they deserve.”
Sharkey argued that the majority of students will be hurt by a return to classrooms since most will keep learning remotely and could lose some attention from teachers who have to balance both sets of children.
“Because the vast majority of students will be staying home, making all teachers go into the school buildings is actually going to harm the education of more children than it will help,” Sharkey said. “Because inevitably our attention as instructors will be occupied by the small number of students in our classroom instead of our larger number on our Google Classroom.”
Returning to schools not safe, parents tell board
Several parents spoke against the district’s reopening plan in the public participation portion of the school board meeting, saying they didn’t feel it was safe.
Aisha Noble, an incoming parent representative on Peirce Elementary’s Local School Council, said she’s concerned with CPS’ plans to allow district employees to send their children to school four days every week instead of two.
She said that exception will threaten the integrity of student pods, which split students into Monday-Tuesday groups and Thursday-Friday groups to limit contact. CPS employees’ students, if they go to school four days a week, will be mixing with both groups and could spread infection to multiple pods if there’s a breakout.
“We ask that CPS halt its plans to return to in-person learning in January and February and instead work with Local School Councils, parents and community groups and the Chicago Teachers Union to create a plan that is safe, equitable and ensures trust for all parties,” Noble said.