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Will CPS kids go back to schools this fall? Lightfoot says ‘we’re not there yet’

The mayor said Monday the city is not ready to bring the district’s 300,000 students back for in-person classes.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot tours Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior Academy of Social Justice in Englewood on the first day back to school Tuesday morning, Sept. 8, 2020. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot tours Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior Academy of Social Justice in Englewood on the first day back to school on Sept. 8, 2020. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Public health conditions have not yet improved to a point that would allow Chicago Public Schools students to return to classrooms in November as officials have hoped, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday.

Despite the challenges remote learning poses for 300,000 students and 30,000 teachers and support staff, Lightfoot and CPS officials have said health will be the main priority in a decision to resume in-person learning.

“We have to see more progress in order for us, I think, to have a conversation about in-person learning,” the mayor said at an afternoon news conference at which she announced an easing of restrictions on indoor seating at bars and restaurants. “We’re not there yet.”

“I don’t want to speculate about the chances. It’s something we are focused on every single day, and we’ll make an announcement relatively soon because we’ve got to give parents and the school community enough time to adapt if we’re going to make a change. But we’re not there yet.”

Lightfoot said there are several factors to consider, including vulnerable students and staff, and the willingness of workers to return to buildings during a pandemic. The mayor and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said they’re encouraged by the direction of COVID-19 metrics they’re monitoring, which include stability in hospitalizations and ER visits.

Since the mayor announced on Aug. 5 her decision to return to full-time remote learning instead of the school system’s planned hybrid model, the seven-day rolling case average has gone up from 280 to 299. The rolling test positivity rate has generally remained steady, down slightly from 4.8% to 4.3%.

Despite the city also now having more daily cases than when the bar and restaurant restrictions were put in place, the mayor insisted officials “feel confident enough” to roll back indoor seating limitations and are still looking for in-person learning at some point.

“I’m hopeful that we will get there sooner rather than later because I know that all-remote learning is a real challenge for everybody involved, not the least of which the students and the parents,” Lightfoot said.

“We’ve got to think about the workforce, of course. We’ve got to think about our principals, our teachers, our staff, coming back to work, what does that mean for them. What does it mean for members of that school community who are over 60, who have underlying medical conditions? Are we going to have enough of a robust workforce to be able to come back in-person?”

The Chicago Teachers Union had previously floated the possibility of a strike when the district was planning to bring kids back on a part-time basis, before the mayor decided to start the year fully remote.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement Monday that Lightfoot and CPS needs to work with the union to improve remote learning “now that Mayor Lightfoot has moved to reopen bars and relax restrictions on fitness and personal care.” Sharkey added that “there are numerous Chicago zip codes, especially in vulnerable Black and Brown communities with high student populations, with double-digit positivity rates.”

Sharkey said a return to classrooms before it’s safe to do so “could be catastrophic” for the city and school communities.

“We cannot prioritize bars and restaurants over Black and Brown children and our city’s most vulnerable students, including special education students and English language learners,” Sharkey said. “Increased socialization could cause a sharper spike, which would make it more difficult to reopen school buildings.”