Too early to tell whether CPS can safely reopen this fall, ex-U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says

“We, as a country, haven’t taken the hard steps we need to open schools and to make things safe,” said Duncan, the former Chicago Public Schools CEO. “Schools systems can’t do this by themselves. They don’t live in a bubble.”

SHARE Too early to tell whether CPS can safely reopen this fall, ex-U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says
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Then Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan appears at Byrne Elementary School, 5329 S. Oak Park Ave., in a this 2003 photo.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday it’s “too early to tell” whether the Chicago Public Schools can safely reopen this fall to in-classroom learning.

It all depends on whether Chicago adults behave responsibly or recklessly this summer to prevent a surge in coronavirus cases that mirrors what’s happening in nearly two dozen other states.

“We, as a country, haven’t taken the hard steps we need to open schools and to make things safe,” said Duncan, who spent more than seven years as CPS’ chief executive.

“What we as a country are willing to do — what small sacrifices we’re willing to make so our children can safely return to school this fall — that’s up to us. Schools systems can’t do this by themselves. They don’t live in a bubble.”

Those sacrifices?

“Wear a mask. Don’t hang out at the beaches. Don’t go to bars. Don’t go eat indoors at restaurants,” he said.

Duncan said he’s tired of hearing people say they care about kids, then forge ahead with the same selfish and reckless behavior that will make it impossible for students who have been out of their classrooms for months to return to school this fall.

Lightfoot blasts pressure from Trump

Mayor Lori Lightfoot told the Chicago Sun-Times in early May that she was determined to reopen CPS on time this fall because “students need their teachers.” She later backtracked, saying CPS would only open if health circumstances allowed.

On Wednesday, the mayor ridiculed this week’s decision by President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to ratchet up the pressure on local districts to fully open schools and not allow a hybrid of in-classroom and remote learning.

“Making those kinds of decisions has to lie with the local school districts because we and they are the ones that know what’s actually happening in local circumstances,” Lightfoot said. “Making some broad decision at the federal level and ignoring the particular circumstances of the locality where they are in the arc of their virus, what their plans are, eliminating the possibility for some kind of a hybrid model — that doesn’t make any sense.”

Lightfoot said her overarching goal is to “do what is in the best interest of our children.” That’s “got to be dictated by the public health guidance,” she said.

CPS officials have said they plan to release a draft of their guidance for the fall in the coming weeks, then hold community meetings to hear input. Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state education officials have already paved the way for schools to reopen as long as specific safety measures are in place.

Union: Major questions remain

Stacy Davis Gates, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said Wednesday that talks with CPS and the city over the district’s fall plan are “not productive enough.”

“It feels very similar to the talks we were having in July 2019,” Davis Gates said, referencing the unfruitful and slow lead-up to the union’s eventual strike. “And that makes me anxious. I do not see enough urgency over creating plans that reflect the on-the-ground realities that workers and students will encounter if they return to school buildings.”

Davis Gates said she finds it “hard to believe” that schools will be ready in time for the fall.

“Very basic questions around safety, around health, have yet to be answered,” she said. “And it’s July. So we’re nervous.”

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