Chicago Public Schools staying closed due to worsening COVID-19 conditions, Lightfoot says

The mayor said the decision to keep kids home had little to do with the Chicago Teachers Union’s increasing pressure and threats to strike.

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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks about Chicago Public Schools’ plans for remote learning in the fall during a press conference at City Hall Wednesday morning August 5, 2020.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Wednesday that Chicago Public Schools will start the year with remote learning.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she bowed to the science, not the teachers union, in abruptly shifting Chicago Public Schools to a remote learning plan for the fall that officials say will have far more structure and accountability than in the spring.

The mayor cited worsening public health conditions and parent concerns about in-person schooling Wednesday in backing off a proposal to return to classrooms next month. To improve the experience for parents and students, schools chief Janice Jackson promised full-day live online instruction by all teachers five days a week and some small group online learning.

The city will hold remote classes for CPS’ 300,000 students at non-charter schools beginning Sept. 8, the previously scheduled start to the school year, through at least the end of the first quarter, Nov. 6. Officials said they hope the virus can be sufficiently contained by that time to implement the two-days-a-week hybrid learning plan they had been touting up to this point.

Details of the new at-home model will be released in the coming days, Jackson said, with the goal of unveiling a more comprehensive plan than the makeshift one used in the spring when the pandemic forced surprise school closures.

Still, some of the same challenges remain from the spring. Last month, Lightfoot unveiled a $50 million “Chicago Connected” plan to provide free high-speed internet service to 100,000 CPS students over the next four years, courtesy of Illinois’ richest man and some of Chicago’s biggest philanthropies. But Jackson didn’t answer how many students had already signed up when asked Wednesday at a news conference with Lightfoot and Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

“I can say confidently that is not an issue for us,” Jackson said of providing laptops, another major obstacle in the spring. “We will provide them with the devices. We’re working on the internet connectivity. Now, it’s time to start talking about what teachers do for kids every single day and what we need parents to do to make sure they’re set up to learn.”

The schools chief said the move to remote learning is not ideal or what she was hoping for, and that “in a perfect world, students would be in school more, not less.”

“Students who have been left out, students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, I am extremely concerned about what this means for them,” Jackson said. “We are doing everything we can to try to mitigate any adverse effects to kids having to be educated in this way.

“But I think the plan that we’ve put in place is the safest plan at this time,” she said. “We remain committed to getting kids back in school as quickly as possible, and I hope the health conditions allow us to do that on Nov. 6.”

The abrupt change led to a shift in tone from Arwady, the health commissioner, who just 24 hours earlier had assured reporters that the hybrid plan for part-time in-person instruction was perfectly safe.

Arwady on Wednesday acknowledged closures were needed after a rapid increase in cases from consistently below an average of 200 new cases a day a month ago to almost 280 today and still rising, and a quick increase of the positivity rate from 3.8% last month to 4.8% today.

“Given the direction that things are going and the need to plan, that’s why the decision was made,” the commissioner said. “ ... We don’t want to be switching decisions in the last few days” before schools open.

Only 1 in 5 parents of color would send kids to school

Along with the announcement of a move to remote learning, CPS released survey results from 68,000 parents on their preferences for the fall.

Of more than 37,000 Black and Latino parents who responded, only about 20% said they would send their kids to school next month. White parents, 21,000 of whom responded, were much less concerned about the virus, with about 50% saying they’d send their children to school.

Across all races, parents of high school students were a bit more open to in-person instruction than elementary school parents. A little less than a third of all parents surveyed said they still weren’t sure if they’d want their kids back in classrooms.

“When we announced the potential for a hybrid model some weeks ago, we were in a very different place in the arc of the pandemic,” the mayor said. “People are fearful. And they are concerned.

“While we will be starting the fall remotely, we need to ensure that we can as closely replicate that in-person contacts with teachers and other staff as closely as possible,” Lightfoot said. “So, there will be different measures put in place to make sure that there’s a level of accountability to make sure that our children are actually connected up with learning.”

When remote learning starts next month, Jackson said principals will be more closely observing teachers to keep classes on track. All schools will be expected to use Google platforms on a daily basis, including Google Classroom and Google Meet. Schools will also be allowed to use different platforms for some exercises — many educators and parents have said there are more appropriate tools for younger elementary students — as long as attendance is logged through Google and live instruction is done on Google Meet.

The Chicago Teachers Union offered tongue-in-cheek praise of the move to remote learning Wednesday after weeks of increasing scrutiny on CPS’ hybrid plan. A statement from union president Jesse Sharkey started with a “congratulations to the mayor for being willing to listen to the concerns of families, educators, community groups and health professionals.

“CPS’ remote learning plan must vastly improve on student and family experiences from the spring, and experts on the ground — our members — must be equal partners with the district in crafting those remote learning plans,” Sharkey said.

‘Not an easy decision’

Lightfoot said the decision to keep kids home had little to do with the CTU’s public attacks and threats to strike. But the last thing the mayor needed was another walkout by Chicago teachers as she grapples with soaring homicides, a troubling rise in coronavirus cases and a $700 million budget shortfall.

On Wednesday, the mayor was asked whether her abrupt pivot to remote learning for the fall was a response to pressure from the Chicago Teachers Union.

“The answer is, ‘No.’ As we have now repeatedly said about every decision that we’ve made in the context of this pandemic, we have to be guided by the science. Period,” the mayor said.

Lightfoot acknowledged this was “not an easy decision to make.” But none of the decisions she has been forced to make during the coronavirus pandemic has been easy.

“When I think particularly about our youngest learners — our pre-K, kindergarten, one through three grades — those are children that really benefit enormously from in-person instruction,” she said.

Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), the Lightfoot ally who chairs the City Council’s Education Committee, said the mayor made the right call at the right time — with a month to go before the first day of school.

“The way that the numbers are trending and parents being a little apprehensive about sending their children to school makes for a big reason to reevaluate the plan and think about what are our next steps,” Scott said Wednesday. “It’s better to be safer than sorry.”

Asked whether Lightfoot acted to avoid another confrontation with the Chicago Teachers Union, Scott said: “Nobody wants a teachers strike.”

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