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‘Summer may be wasted’ if CPS doesn’t help students who aren’t logging on now, school board president says

Summer school will be taught remotely, raising concerns that students failing in similar circumstances now will continue to have the same troubles.

Fourth grade students work on computers at Roswell B. Mason Elementary School on the South Side after a Chicago Teachers Union strike closed schools for 11 days, Friday morning, Nov. 1, 2019.
Fourth grade students work on computers at Roswell B. Mason Elementary School on the South Side.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

Chicago Public Schools officials have said students who don’t complete all their work during remote learning this spring will be told to register for summer school to make up lost learning.

But questions have been raised about what will change in the next month to make summer school successful for tens of thousands of students who, according to new data released this week, have a laptop but still aren’t logging on to do school work for various reasons.

Despite CPS reporting that 93% of students now have both a computer and internet, doubts remain about the consistency and quality of that broadband access. There are also high school students working essential jobs to help pay the bills, and children whose parents are at work and unable to help with homework. Overall, less than 60 percent of students are logging on three days a week or more, CPS said.

Board of Education President Miguel del Valle questioned at this week’s school board meeting whether CPS officials have a plan in place to help those kids.

“My focus is on this small group, this percentage of students that need this help this summer,” del Valle said. “Otherwise, it’s going to be a continuation of the same. And then the summer may be wasted for some of these students.

“At this point, as we are doing with other students that are provided with hotspots, are we going to make sure that we identify those students and families and follow up with them in a timely manner so that they’re ready to go on day one of summer school?”

CPS Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade told del Valle that officials don’t have a clear solution for students who have laptops and internet but aren’t doing online work because of other life circumstances, or “families who choose to do non-digital as opposed to digital.”

“Students who don’t engage, it may not be solely based on technology access,” McDade said. “So I cannot say that remote learning in the summer is going to all of a sudden miraculously be so much new and improved in comparison to what’s happening today. But what I will say is that we have an obligation to make sure we’re opening up opportunities for the summer to try to capture those students.”

McDade said officials are soon sending out notices to parents who need to sign up their children for summer school. If technology is still a problem, families will have another opportunity during the registration process to let the district know whether they need a computer or internet access.

“Once we identify all of the students that will be designated for summer school, we’ll be able to do a second capture of whether or not we have families that need a device that were missed,” McDade said. “We don’t provide connectivity, we’re relying on our partners that provide that, such as AT&T and Comcast. I cannot tell you that I have a way to provide connectivity outside of what is currently available.”

District officials have said providing internet to all students would be nearly impossible without additional help from broadband providers, which offer free and reduced services for low-income families.

CPS passed out 100,000 laptops and tablets the past couple months, an effort made possible by repurposing 65,000 devices already in use at schools. The same isn’t true with mobile internet hotspots.

CPS only had 2,000 hotspots in hand and bought another 12,000 last month, which were committed to the district’s homeless students. Officials have said it’s been difficult to purchase any more because production has slowed due to the pandemic.

Phil DiBartolo, CPS’ chief information officer, said the district is looking to make the most of the existing inventory over the summer.

“When we have student refusals for those devices, say for example, it turns out they do have access to internet, whether it’s via smartphone and their data plan, or some type of connectivity, then we’re looking into putting those back into a pool and getting those out to the students that need them,” DiBartolo said. “We’re doing what we can to reach these students, whether it’s via devices or bandwidth.”

Asked by board member Luisiana Melendez whether any information was available about the quality of internet access students currently have, McDade and DiBartolo said there was none.