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CPS will reopen next month even if only a fraction of students opt in — and most teachers will be required to return, CEO says

Schools CEO Janice Jackson said officials are so convinced that reopening schools is safe, they’re working on a plan to bring back at least some high schools during the second semester in addition to elementary schools and special education programs.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Dr. Janice Jackson speaks while Mayor Lori Lightfoot listens during a press conference at King Academy of Social Justice in Englewood on the first day of the fall semester.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Dr. Janice Jackson speaks while Mayor Lori Lightfoot listens during a press conference at King Academy of Social Justice in Englewood on the first day of the fall semester.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools will reopen in January even if only a small fraction of students opt to return to classrooms, schools CEO Janice Jackson said late last week, and she warned that teachers without preexisting conditions who simply “don’t show up” to school buildings will be fired.

What’s more, schools officials are so convinced that reopening schools is safe, they’re now working on a plan to bring back at least some high schools during the second semester, Jackson said in an interview with the Sun-Times. The district had expected to keep older students home while elementary schools return Feb. 1 and special education programs come back next month.

“We will educate any student who wants an in-person option. There is no threshold that we have to meet,” Jackson said, adding: “If 15% of the kids ... decide that they’re gonna return at any given school, we will educate that 15% in person.

“We believe that number will gradually grow over time as people become more confident in our plan.”

Parents of elementary and middle school students have until Monday to decide whether their kids will return to the classroom or continue remote learning. Those who choose remote learning will not get another opportunity to send their children back to schools until April.

Teachers “don’t have a choice of opting in or out,” Jackson said, unless they submit a formal request for medical leave and are approved. Fear of contracting the coronavirus and safety concerns raised by the Chicago Teachers Union are not a legitimate excuse, she said.

“If they don’t show up to work, it will be handled the same way it’s handled in any other situation where an employee fails to come to work,” Jackson said.

However, teachers or staff with legitimate health concerns, including those that fall under the Family Medical Leave Act, will be able to opt out.

“We don’t want people who have preexisting conditions coming to school, putting themselves in jeopardy,” she said.

But CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said Jackson’s “bullying” attempt to force teachers “fearful of their own lives” back into the classroom won’t work.

“Our educators and our parents and students are terrified at what is happening every day in our city and across this country,” Davis Gates said.

“To threaten people already dealing with high anxiety, with issues of high mortality doesn’t speak to the type of leadership that is necessary in a pandemic. You do not back people who need support and advocacy into corners. You engage them. You build coalitions. And you build out plans that are satisfactory to all of the stakeholders.”

What happens if the district moves to fire teachers who refuse to come to work?

“We don’t even have a safe, credible plan for reopening. So we don’t believe that they can reopen,” she said.

Officials are still going through the applications for medical leave, Jackson said.

High school plans

If CPS brings back high schools later in the spring, officials would start with under-enrolled buildings where social distancing can easily be maintained, Jackson said. Larger population high schools might have a harder time returning.

Until now, high school students have been forced to learn remotely because of the difficulty of keeping small pods of students together in a high school setting, where students take different classes and move around more than younger students do.

“We’ve had high school principals come to us and say, ‘We have enough space in our schools to bring our kids back.’ So, we’re having those conversations with them to see if we can come up with some individualized plans for our high schools [that] would be able to do this safely,” Jackson told the Sun-Times.

“We do have some high schools that are large and the social distancing would be impossible. That’s where some of our challenges lie,” she said.

Jackson said they are exploring all options and families can expect updates “in the coming weeks.”

Barring an unforeseen surge in which coronavirus cases double in less than 18 days, Chicago’s third stab at reopening public schools will begin on Jan. 11 with pre-K students and those with complex disabilities.

Remote learning not working for most vulnerable kids

Like Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Jackson portrayed that decision — and the broader plan to return elementary and middle-school student in February — as a matter of racial equity.

She noted that remote learning simply doesn’t work for the youngest and most vulnerable students. Same goes for African American students who are “failing classes at a higher rate than their peers” with what she called “huge disparities” in remote learning participation.

“When we see data that is glaring — where a particular group that has been marginalized, under-supported and under-educated for decades in this country — why would we allow that to happen in a pandemic?” Jackson said.

She said the teachers union should embrace a return to the classroom, instead of pointing to a pair of surveys of parents it conducted that found most didn’t want to send their kids back.

The CTU should be “locking arms with us to call attention to this educational crisis,” she said.

Teachers who do show up to work will be required to do double duty. If a quarter of the class opts for in-person learning and the remaining 75% stays home, they’ll be asked to teach both groups simultaneously.

Jackson acknowledged there will be a “learning curve and heavy learning demands” on teachers asked to juggle both. That’s why CPS opted to give “adequate prep time” by announcing the slow reopening plan two months before it starts.