CPS has no plans to reduce screen time for remote learners, despite complaints

CPS CEO Janice Jackson said any families who are concerned about the long hours students are spending online should opt into the district’s forthcoming return to partial in-person learning.

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Many families worry their students are spending too much time on computer screens during remote learning.

Many families worry their students are spending too much time on computer screens during remote learning.

Sun-Times file photo

Despite calls to reduce the time students spend staring at computer screens during remote learning, Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson said she’s unwilling to cut any live instructional time built into remote schedules, arguing students have already lost too much time in the past year to a teachers strike and pandemic closures.

In an interview, Jackson said any families who are concerned about screen time should opt into the district’s forthcoming return to partial in-person learning, adding that she feels strongly about her position and doesn’t “plan on making any concessions” on an issue that has been hotly debated this fall.

“I think our teaching and learning department did a really good job of making sure that the screen time was grade level appropriate,” Jackson said. “We again listened to feedback from parents and the teachers union and made adjustments related to that earlier. But what we have a firm stance on is we won’t do anything that reduces the amount of instructional time that students receive.

“Now, is it ideal? Absolutely not,” Jackson said. “That’s why we’re putting out a plan to bring kids back to schools. So my answer would be, if people are concerned about that, in-person instruction is probably going to be a better option for you and your family.”

The conversation around screen time isn’t likely to end anytime soon despite the anticipated reopening of schools after the new year — a point Jackson acknowledged. If CPS trends follow those in other major districts nationwide, a majority of students will likely choose to continue learning remotely. Even those who opt into in-person learning will only be in classrooms two days every week.

Many families and educators have been disappointed with CPS’ scheduling requirements that require several hours of screen time — especially for high school students — with minimal breaks. Surveys circulated and signed by thousands of people in recent months have urged the district to allow more flexibility.

In a Q&A that was emailed to families last month, a student told Principal Joyce Kenner at Whitney Young High School that they were fatigued by the long schedule. Kenner said she asked the district if she could make adjustments “to address the long hours students are spending each day on their computers.”

“We were told no,” Kenner wrote. “I am hopeful if we continue with remote learning past the [first] semester, the district will open up discussions about adjustments to high school schedules.”

Seth Lavin, principal at Brentano Elementary in Logan Square, said his school has included small group work and breakout sessions in the live instruction time to try to keep things interesting for the younger students. And he’s allowed for flexibility with non-instruction time so students can get up and take their eyes off their screens for a bit.

“We’re all trying to do the best thing, and this system gives our families the best experience we can for remote school during this pandemic,” Lavin said, adding that he has felt empowered by CPS to make the schedule work for families. “There are definitely families who feel the screen time is too much, there’s definitely kids who feel the screen time is too much. And in those cases, we do what we can to try to be flexible.”

Lavin said he and his teachers have prioritized improving remote learning throughout the year, and with two-thirds of Brentano students telling the district this week that they want to remain in remote learning moving forward, that’s still going to be his focus.

The Chicago Teachers Union has long argued that the district’s focus should remain on improving remote learning, which is here to stay in some form until at least next fall.

CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said the quality and sustainability of remote learning has varied across the district because individual schools haven’t been given the green light to listen to families and teachers. She called Jackson’s hardline stance “disappointing and dangerous” leadership.

“They present intractable proposals and they say to everyone involved, ‘Take it or leave it,’” Davis Gates said. “That’s not how you lead in a pandemic. Their leadership is disappointing and dangerous. I really wish they would begin to lead with courage, empathy and democracy.”

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