CPS open to improving remote learning as F’s increase, attendance drops

High schools have faced a 4.3% drop in attendance compared to 0.9% for elementary schools. Meanwhile, more A’s were given this year but also more failing grades at all grade levels and in all racial groups.

SHARE CPS open to improving remote learning as F’s increase, attendance drops

Protestors with Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education march through the Loop Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

As students continue to ask for more leniency and support in remote learning, Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson reiterated her stance Wednesday that the school district would not reduce screen time — but she suggested officials would be willing to revisit how that time is spent.

Those students’ pleas come as new data released Wednesday shows failing grades are up and attendance is down across Chicago Public Schools, largely along racial and socioeconomic lines.

The district’s year-to-date attendance has dropped 1.9% this school year compared to last —92.5% to 90.6% — with the most serious decreases coming among Black students at 4.5%, Latino children at 1.4%, special education students at 3.6% and homeless students at 6.7%, district records show. White and Asian American kids are attending at higher rates than last year.

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High schools have faced a 4.3% drop in attendance compared to 0.9% for elementary schools, and charter school attendance has fallen 6.3% compared to 1.3% for district-run schools.

Grades, meanwhile, are skewing to extremes. There are more A’s but also more F’s in reading and math at all grade levels and in all racial groups. Elementary students in particular are getting F’s at more than double the rate as last year. Perhaps most troubling to district officials is a significant rise in failing grades handed out to Black and Latino students.

Jackson has said the best way to counteract those struggles is to provide families with an in-person learning option because remote learning isn’t serving those students well. Studies have shown Black and Latino parents are most likely to be essential workers, making it harder to balance their jobs with helping their children learn remotely. And disparities in access to technology have mostly hurt communities of color.

Students ‘tired of staring at screens’

Even so, many families have said they aren’t ready to return to in-person learning during the pandemic, and that CPS is requiring too much screen time — which is mentally draining students and killing their motivation — and unnecessarily giving out failing marks to students during a pandemic.

Dayana Martinez, an eighth grader at Nathan Davis Elementary, said Wednesday at a Downtown demonstration led by Raise Your Hand, a parent group, that it’s “alarming” that CPS is giving out failing grades when students are trying to cope with circumstances beyond their control.

“We have struggles, loss and worries to deal with at home and in our personal lives as we’re trying to comprehend what’s going on in our communities and city,” Martinez said. “We’re tired of staring at screens for hours. We are tired of not having access to someone to talk to, like a counselor, all while trying to balance our grades with a fear of failing and feeling like we are unsure of what our future looks like.”

Martinez said time should be dedicated each school day to checking in on students, and space should be created for community building.

Leslie Maldonado, also in eighth grade at Nathan Davis Elementary, said she stays up past midnight most nights working on homework, then has to wake up early for class the next morning.There is too much screen time and too much demanded from students, and not enough support is being catered to their needs, she said.

“It is so tiring to not get enough sleep, to not have time in the morning to eat or take care of myself,” Maldonado said. “CPS needs to understand that our mental health matters.

“Students are not getting the support they need. Which is why so many of us are failing classes and feeling unmotivated. We need school counselors we can trust that are available and students can approach with challenges we are facing.”

Jackson said at Wednesday’s virtual school board meeting that her previous comments saying the district has done all it can to improve remote learning have been taken out of context. She said CPS has invested $75 million in remote learning, but there are limited resources and officials want to prioritize reopening schools.

Jackson acknowledged, however that “some version of remote learning will be with us even going into the next school year,” and said the district has “an obligation to continue to improve remote learning.”

“We will not reduce instructional time for remote learning,” said Jackson, who added that “it’s hard for me to be convinced as an educator that less time with a qualified teacher, whether remote or in-person, benefits anybody. ...

“With that said, we do have to think about how we use that time wisely. ... I think there’s some schools that have gotten this right and have been very creative, but we’ve also heard from students where maybe that’s not happening, and I think that’s an opportunity where the district has to step up and work directly with school leaders to make sure there is a place where, if time on the computer is excessive ... those issues definitely need to be addressed.”

Expected in-person attendance drops again

The district also revealed Wednesday that another 7,000 students who originally indicated they would return to classrooms have since opted back out of in-person learning, district data showed, on top of 10,000 who previously backed out.

In all, 60,700 preschool through eighth grade students and children in special education cluster programs are now due to return two days a week, accounting for 30% of the 205,000 students in those grades and programs.

Joseph Williams, a father of five CPS students, said he feels “like parents do not have a voice at the table” and has felt “really left out of the process.”

Williams is part of Raise Your Hand, which delivered a list of demands to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s staff at City Hall Wednesday morning before marching to CPS headquarters for a demonstration.

The parents are asking for parent representation in monitoring school reopening safety, additional staff, more comprehensive special education planning, better technology support and more autonomy at the school level. The group is also urging the district to provide more mental health support for students, including additional counselors and social workers and one-on-one check-ins with students.

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