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Chicago Public Schools will go fully remote to start the fall

The district had planned to bring most students back two days a week, but is now planning to provide distance learning only, at least initially.

Sawyer Elementary School, 5247 S. Spaulding Ave., on the Southwest Side
Sawyer Elementary School, 5247 S. Spaulding Ave., on the Southwest Side, Thursday morning, Feb. 27, 2020. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

UPDATE: Mayor Lori Lightfoot explains the decision to keep schools closed as pandemic worsens

Chicago Public Schools students will start the new school year at home next month as officials plan to announce as soon as Wednesday that they’ll back off a proposal that would have put children in classrooms two days a week, sources told the Chicago Sun-Times.

The decision to keep kids at home is an abrupt about-face from city officials who have faced heavy pressure from teachers and parents to go fully remote over health concerns during a pandemic, and who only four days ago asked families to decide whether their children would take part in the district’s in-person plan.

The switch, spearheaded by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office, also came mere hours after the city health commissioner said she was in favor of putting kids in schools with proper health protocols, and that she didn’t believe the risk of spread was significant.

While it isn’t clear when, if at all, students and teachers will return to schools this year, in-person classes aren’t likely to resume “at least for the first quarter,” which ends Nov. 5, a source said. With months of remote learning ahead, CPS has only a few weeks left to develop and unveil a more comprehensive plan than the one the district was forced to use in the spring when the coronavirus made surprise school closures necessary.

Lightfoot and CPS had said all along that they would decide on in-person schooling closer to the start of the school year Sept. 8. Since the hybrid plan was announced last month, CPS has held five online community meetings and conducted a survey to let stakeholders weigh in, and has been in the process of evaluating that feedback. At the end of last week, parents received an email that asked them to let the district know their choice by this Friday. News of a decision from the city Tuesday preempted those efforts before they were finished.

Moving to a fully remote plan helps City Hall avoid a drawn out public battle — or even another work stoppage — with the Chicago Teachers Union, which last fall went on strike for 11 days. This week CTU leaders significantly escalated their public attacks on the mayor as they called for teachers and students to be kept home.

Earlier Tuesday, sources told the Sun-Times that the CTU planned to convene an emergency meeting of its elected delegates early next week to discuss another strike vote that could have forced CPS’ hand in nixing its hybrid leaning plan.

After news of CPS plans broke, CTU President Jesse Sharkey proclaimed the move “a win for teachers, students and parents.”

“It’s sad that we have to strike or threaten to strike to be heard, but when we fight we win,” he wrote on Twitter.

Though the union’s pressure campaign played a part in the seemingly hasty roll-out of the altered plans, sources said, the actual decision on remote learning was more based on the worsening health data and input from parents.

Lightfoot and CPS administrators will “follow the science” to determine how long the district, the third largest in the nation with 355,000 students, will remain in full-time remote learning, sources said.

“The data don’t look great,” a source close to the decision said. “We are not as bad as other places, but the daily case rate is up to 273, and it’s rising. ... There was a lot of negative feedback and parents who were saying they weren’t going to send their kids to school. If parents aren’t going to send their kids, you can’t do it.”

Those factors played a much bigger role than the all-out push against in-person learning by the CTU, a source said.

During a news conference Tuesday about the state of the coronavirus in Chicago, Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady was asked whether it was safe for parents to send their kids back to school.

Arwady said it depends on whether the local outbreak “is under control” and whether schools have safeguards in place to control the spread.

“Our numbers are on the way up, so I have some concerns there,” she said. “I can’t say the risk is zero, of course. And again, the more our numbers are going up in Chicago, the more concern I have about this because, as our cases increase, the risk of people having COVID — especially asymptomatic COVID — does go up.”

But she quickly added, “I personally am in favor of having children in school. … Where the child is at school wearing a mask with the social distancing with the appropriate procedures in place, I honestly do not think the risk of spread is significant. I wouldn’t be promoting this if I thought it was.”