Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Friday she is determined to reopen Chicago Public Schools on time this fall, but do it safely, perhaps by using a system that limits the numbers of students and teachers in schools at one time.
Declaring “students need their teachers,” Lightfoot recalled how moved she was to see video during the pandemic of an elementary school teacher who “literally drove to her student’s house, sat in the driveway” to maintain social distance and read the young girl a book.
“That’s what teachers do. They are tough and dedicated and empathetic. And particularly our youngest kids — they need that touch. They need that social immersion and learning. And the best way they can get that is being in a classroom with their peers,” Lightfoot told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“We have to do that in a way that is smart and safe — not only for the children, but also for the entire school community: the teachers, the janitors, the lunchroom cooks,” she said.
CPS traditionally starts school the day after Labor Day, and the mayor said reopening schools is definitely on the table.
“I can envision a world, certainly by the start of school in September, that we can do that,” she said. “There’s lots of different options on the table. Having alternate days. Kind of a platoon circumstance. Really limiting the number of kids that are in a classroom at any given time. ...
“My goal is to reopen school in the fall.”
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, asked about Lightfoot’s comments at his daily press briefing later Friday, said “we’re all determined” to get schools reopened.
“I think you’ve got to do planning for reopening in the fall,” he said. “None of us knows what the future exactly holds but I think we have a great hope and desire for reopening schools when they usually would.”
But the mayor’s public assertion that schools could reopen took the Chicago Teachers Union by surprise. President Jesse Sharkey told reporters on a virtual conference call that he was “flabbergasted” Lightfoot and schools officials didn’t consult with teachers before making her comments.
”You’d think she would have wanted to talk to the people who are supposed to actually be going into those buildings and do the work before making an announcement like that,” Sharkey said.
“Kids do need their teachers. Kids also need to be healthy and safe. Making promises might sound reassuring, but if you’re making promises that aren’t backed up by what the conditions in schools are going to look like ... come on.”
CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates questioned how schools in the hardest-hit communities would be able to social distance. Any type of return to school will require more staff to be hired so classes can be spread out, she said, and additional janitorial workers to keep buildings clean.
What’s more, the district would need to also plan for closing a school abruptly if there is an outbreak.
“If someone’s positive in a school, you’ve got to close it,” Sharkey said. “Because it means everyone who was exposed to them could potentially be positive and you’re not gonna know for two weeks.”
Vary by neighborhood
Lightfoot acknowledged the reopening plan will vary by neighborhood, depending on whether individual schools are overcrowded, at capacity or underutilized.
She promised to be creative in crafting plans in concert with principals, teachers, parents and students, as well as neighborhood leaders, perhaps by using community centers as alternate learning sites. But she pretty much ruled out using some of the still-vacant Chicago Public Schools shuttered by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“There’s not that many closed buildings left,” the mayor said. “And as you also know, across CPS there are some schools that are crowded and we have to have a plan for that. But there are also a lot of schools that are underutilized.
She said reopening will require thinking “creatively about space” and any plan will be shared with the entire CPS community.
But, she said, “we’re only gonna do something if we can do it safely.”
Remote learning not a substitute
The coronavirus pandemic has turned a CPS school year that already featured an 11-day teachers strike into a year of disrupted and lost learning for many students.
CPS has made the switch to remote learning by distributing more than 100,000 laptop computers and tablets, either from its own stockpile or devices donated by individuals and corporations.
But it’s been a difficult transition made worse by the digital divide in some of Chicago’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
Earlier this week, Lightfoot demanded Chicago internet providers stop “putting profits over people” and bridge that digital divide standing in the way of remote learning.
On Friday, the mayor acknowledged remote learning is no substitute for in-person instruction.
“I really worry about [the students], particularly our youngest of children. It’s so critically important that they get the right start. And that’s hard to do for them when you’re talking about remote learning,” she said.
In a letter sent by CPS to families late Friday afternoon about whether schools will reopen, the district said “no decisions have been made yet for the fall.”
Contributing: Tina Sfondeles