Most Chicago Public Schools students are set to return to classrooms two days a week this fall under a tentative plan that still includes part-time remote learning months after efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus forced the closure of schools in an unprecedented disruption to education.
The partial return for the majority of the 300,000 students at non-charter schools means many of the same challenges remain for families and staff who are concerned about their health, students in special education and working-class parents who will continue scrambling to find reliable childcare on the days their children are not in school.
City officials say they are implementing stringent health protocols at their more than 500 schools — a requirement most parents and teachers requested to support the plan — such as daily temperature checks, universal masking and routine cleaning with the help of 400 new janitors. They also call for social distancing “to the greatest extent possible,” and are keeping high school juniors and seniors in full-time remote learning to lessen crowding. Families with students of all ages will be allowed to opt out of in-person schooling for any reason.
Even so, the city’s top public health official warned that COVID-19 cases at schools will be “inevitable” and that the Chicago Department of Public Health would not hesitate to recommend further school closures.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS officials call the plan a “preliminary framework” that could change based on how the raging pandemic evolves between now and early September when schools will open their doors. She added that it’s “just the beginning of this conversation” as the district has scheduled five community meetings at the end of this month to take feedback from parents, students and staff.
“I want to take this opportunity to make it clear to every parent up front that there will be options for you,” the mayor said at a news conference announcing the plan. “Whatever happens, and whatever form this challenge takes, I want everyone to know that education will happen this fall. School will happen this fall.”
Lightfoot said the city is looking into options for childcare similar to the plan announced by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio that will provide free services for parents of 100,000 students in that city. NYC and Chicago, home to the country’s first and third largest public districts in the nation, have for now contained their COVID-19 outbreaks and are among the nation’s only major cities planning to bring students back to school. Los Angeles, San Diego and Houston — which have seen surges in virus infections — have defied President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos’ wishes and announced they will keep school buildings closed for now.
Lightfoot said she’s not worried about a legal challenge or another strike from one of her biggest political rivals, the Chicago Teachers Union, which has called for full remote learning to start the fall. The mayor said she believes any differences will be sorted out between now and the start of school.
Both sides acknowledge full remote learning doesn’t provide the same quality of education as normal schooling no matter the planning that goes into it, but the union has said it remains the safer option. CTU leadership has suggested teachers could refuse to go to work if they don’t have health and safety guarantees, raising the prospect of another potential walkout months after the 11-day teachers strike last fall. On Friday, the union immediately criticized the plan as being “simply too dangerous for students, educators and their families to attend school in person.”
“This will inevitably place students and educators at risk of exposure. In a school district where 8 out of 10 students come from Black and Latinx communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, the decision to return children and educators to the classroom has the potential to further enflame the pandemic in our city,” the union said in a statement.
‘Flexible and capable’
Janice Jackson, the chief executive at CPS, said the district tried to make a plan that’s “flexible and capable of delivering high-quality instruction whether students are learning from home or at school.”
“This model allows many of our students to reap the benefits they can only achieve through in-person instruction in front of a highly qualified teacher,” Jackson said. “There is no replacing a loving teacher and learning with your friends.”
As it stands, about half of CPS students will be in schools on any given day. Most teachers and staff will be in schools at least four days a week.
Half of Kindergarten through 10th grade students will attend school Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other half will attend Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will feature virtual lessons while schools are disinfected between cohorts. Kids will be given assignments to complete independently on the other two days they’re at home.
Remote learning, even half the week, is likely to remain a challenge. Four in 10 CPS students took part in online learning two days a week or fewer in the spring, district data showed. While CPS has said almost all students now have some type of computer at home, internet — especially a reliable connection — has been harder to come by. The city, through private donors, has pledged to hook up families with free broadband. But it’s unclear how many students still don’t have service at home.
At school, students will be split up into groups of 15, with each “pod” staying in an assigned classroom with assigned seating in desks placed at least six feet apart “where feasible,” the district said. The smaller pods, down from the usual class sizes of around 30, will allow for easier isolation and contact tracing if a student comes down with the coronavirus, officials said.
The plan made no mention of lunch or recess periods, only saying each pod will use a designated bathroom, but Jackson said students might go to a lunchroom or gymnasium at some point in the day. Lightfoot and Jackson acknowledged keeping masks on the youngest elementary students for six hours a day would be a challenge, but argued children learn quickly to adjust.
The oldest students, high school juniors and seniors, will continue full-time remote learning, which keeps another 50,000 people out of buildings to allow for easier social distancing.
Students in special education cluster programs will be in school full-time. Other children enrolled in special education and English learners will be prioritized for in-person learning if an individual school has the space and staffing, the district said. Both half- and full-day preschool programs will also be in classrooms full-time. Buses will run their regular routes, officials said, with some adjustments to allow for social distancing.
“Schools will have a tremendous amount of flexibility to make sure that the plan that is chosen makes sense for their particular school community,” Lightfoot said.
Any families, whether they have underlying medical conditions or not, can opt out of in-person learning, officials said. Staff with medical or caretaking concerns will have to request a leave of absence or another accommodation through a process that will become available later this month.
The teachers union criticized CPS for not hiring additional teachers and support staff to substitute out employees who have medical concerns.
Jackson said CPS will accommodate those with concerns, but she’s not worried about hundreds or thousands of the district’s 31,000 school-based employees calling out sick.
“The expectation will be that everybody else comes to work,” she said.
1.2 million masks, 42K hand sanitizer dispensers
The city says it has bought 1.2 million reusable cloth face masks for students and staff members and 40,000 containers of disinfectant wipes for schools. The district is also pledging to put 42,000 hand sanitizer dispensers in classrooms and high traffic areas, and to hand out 22,000 touchless thermometers for health screenings.
To support increased disinfecting schedules, CPS says it is also hiring 400 custodians who will be employed by the district, not the private vendor that is contracted for usual cleaning services.
Jackson said the district is using $75 million in emergency coronavirus response funding approved by the Board of Education to pay for the additional resources. Another $205 million in federal emergency coronavirus relief will be used, and Jackson said she’s expecting additional dollars from Congress in the weeks to come.
Alison Arwady, the city’s public health commissioner and a licensed pediatrician, said she supports the hybrid plan that includes part-time in-school learning because “our local outbreak remains broadly in control in Chicago.”
“We think it’s a good balance between mitigating risk and really meeting the needs of students,” the health commissioner said. “Kids need interaction for healthy development. Younger children in particular just do not learn as well through screens.”
Arwady said she “will not endorse any plan that I believe jeopardizes the health of students.” A spike in cases would be met with renewed closures, she said.
“Please know that if one month from now, two months from now, six months from now, our local data worsened to a point where we could not support in-classroom learning or needed to dial back other interactions, we would not hesitate to make that difficult recommendation.”
CPS has struggled to keep classrooms clean since it privatized the bulk of its cleaning services in an effort originally designed to save money and lessen headaches for principals, as the Chicago Sun-Times has previously reported. The district has since decided to end that cleaning contract, but not until after this school year.
CPS also had trouble in the spring distributing hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies to schools, leaving teachers to use their own money or, at privileged schools where it was possible, accept donations from parents.
In the case of a student or staffer testing positive for COVID-19, a school might not necessarily fully close, Arwady said. She and CPS officials left open the possibility that only the 15-student pod and anyone who had close contact with the person who tested positive would be told to quarantine, “rather than an entire school community.” Arwady said a school could shut down if multiple pods saw a positive case, an indicator that the virus was spreading through the building.
Parents want cleaner schools
Officials said 50,000 parents responded to a district survey on reopening. Families ”overwhelmingly” wanted cleaner schools, clear expectations for learning and smaller class sizes. Parents strongly preferred a part-time return to schools with a hybrid schedule for fewer people to be in the building at the same time, officials said.
Schaunda Hall, a mother of a student at Cather Elementary in East Garfield Park on the West Side, said at the mayor’s news conference that the parent perspective is an important one to consider as CPS ramps up learning in the fall.
“When I think about goals and dreams for next school year for my little heartbeat, I think about education and safety,” Hall said. “We have to be honest. COVID-19 is real. It’s serious and it’s taking lives.
“The plan to reopen schools should allow for flexibility. It should be rooted in equality. It needs to be prioritized both with students’ academic and social and emotional needs. It needs to put safety first.”
Estrella Cedeno, 36-year-old mother of five and West Rogers Park resident, has three children in CPS. She said in an interview that it is too soon to bring students back to school, and plans to keep her kids at home even if the two-day-a-week format moves forward.
“How do they know [the kids] are not in contact with someone with COVID when they’re not in school?” she asked.
Cedeno, who contracted COVID-19 after coming in contact with an emergency room doctor who had the virus, called it “the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life.”
“Even if it’s one day, I’m not ready for that,” she said, of the return to school. “I honestly would like remote learning for at least the first semester, until the numbers go down a little bit.”
Cedeno’s eldest daughter is starting community college online in the fall.
“If it’s not safe for older kids, then why is it safe for little kids who can’t follow directions that well?” said Cedeno.
Parents, students and staff have until July 31 to submit more feedback at cps.edu/reopening2020survey. Five virtual meetings are set to be held for more input, one each day of the week starting on July 27 at varying times in the morning and late afternoon.