What in-person school could look like for CPS high schoolers who opt in

While CPS has released few details before students must decide Friday, one principal hopes schedules will be similar to before the pandemic with students switching classrooms and teachers throughout the day.

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Parents and students wait in line to pick up text books outside Whitney M. Young Magnet High School on the first day of school in September. The books were used for remote learning.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

CPS high school students have until Friday to decide whether to return for in-person classes this year — even though they have little idea what things will look like if they go back.

Chicago Public Schools officials have released few details about reopening plans, although they said earlier this week that April 19, the beginning of the fourth quarter, is the target date to restart. The district said it is eyeing a hybrid learning plan that would put students in classrooms two days each week, meaning students would have 18 days or so of in-person learning before school gets out in late June.

The district also said it hopes to keep students with the same teachers they currently have for remote learning.

It’s not just the district’s 74,000 high school students who have been given few details while CPS negotiates with the Chicago Teachers Union. High school principals are also waiting for more information.

Whitney Young expects half of student body to return

Joyce Kenner, the principal at Whitney Young Magnet High School, one of the city’s largest, said in an interview Thursday that she hopes the district develops a few models for principals to choose from so they can tailor plans to their schools’ needs.

All but 500 Whitney Young students have responded to the CPS survey due Friday on in-person learning, Kenner said. So far, about 600 of 2,200 students have chosen to return. She expects that number to rise to closer to 1,000 by the deadline.

Kenner met with a 17-student committee Thursday to hear what they’d like to see when the school reopens. She said they liked a hybrid learning schedule similar to the one in CPS elementary schools where half the students who opt in would attend classes Monday and Tuesday, and the other half go Thursday and Friday.

In that scenario, Kenner said students would travel to each of their classes throughout the day like they did before the pandemic. The fact that less than half of students are likely to return — meaning potentially only a quarter of the student population would be in school on any given day — leaves enough space to keep students socially distanced throughout the day, she said. 

“I’m positive that we will be able to work it out,” Kenner said. “High schools are going to be tricky at best. But we as leaders, we are going to do the very best job we can to ensure the safety of our school population. I think it’s time for our kids to come back. I just think that they’ve gone through so much, and if we can just give them any semblance of normalcy, I really want to do that.”

One key element of the elementary plan that Kenner viewed as “almost impossible” in high schools was assigning teens to 15-student pods which stay in the same classroom all day to limit interaction with others and avoid potential larger exposure to a COVID-19 case. High schoolers who have different subjects in various classrooms would be “up in arms,” Kenner said, if they had to change their current teachers, schedules and classmates now to make that work.

For safety protocols, Kenner said she’d like to mandate double masking, and will ensure hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are available in every classroom so desks can be wiped down between classes.

“Lunch is a big deal,” she said, but she’s open to outdoor options or even moving the lunch period to the end of the school day and giving students to-go meals.

The final framework, however, will likely be decided in negotiations between the district and union.

Look to the suburbs

Students and families could get a clue as to what’s being considered by looking at high schools in suburbs or at private schools that have already reopened.

New Trier Township High School District 203 created a condensed schedule with fewer periods to minimize the number of times students travel between classrooms, and opened up indoor and outdoor areas for lunch.

“Teaching and learning will not be the same in any of our scenarios this year, but our teachers have dedicated the time and thought to ensure it will be the best possible,” reads a message to families on the New Trier website.

Township High School District 214 in Arlington Heights has limited nearly all locker usage and entirely banned water fountains. Other suburban districts have created new hallway and stairwell setups with one-directional traffic, and lengthened passing periods to give students more time to follow those new rules. Many schools have eliminated group work.

Niles Township High School District 219 reopened its high schools March 1 with a shortened school day that puts students in classrooms half the day then has everyone remote in the afternoon.

Students are split into Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday cohorts for in-person instruction. They attend two or three classes in the morning before an 11:50 a.m. dismissal. Once kids go home, they attend another two classes remotely. Only one or two students are allowed into bathrooms at a time. And as students leave the building, they can grab to-go lunches. 

The district said it hopes to move to a full day of school “when it is safe to do so,” and will create socially distanced spaces in the cafeteria for lunch.

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