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13 questions with CPS CEO Janice Jackson a week after schools reopen

As schools open widely for the first time in a year, Jackson sat down for a wide-ranging interview about the pandemic’s educational impact, families’ trust in the system and the outlook for the rest of the year.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Dr. Janice Jackson speaks during a press conference at the Chicago Public Schools Headquarters last July.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Dr. Janice Jackson speaks during a press conference at the Chicago Public Schools Headquarters last July.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

With nearly a week in the books for Chicago Public Schools’ long-awaited reopening, schools chief Janice Jackson sat for a one-on-one interview with the Sun-Times, covering a wide range of topics.

The conversation took place Thursday at Kershaw Elementary in Englewood. Here is a transcript:

K-8 reopening

Sun-Times: How has the first week of reopening gone? Has it lived up to your expectations?

Jackson: I’m happy with the first week. Of course, I’m excited that we’re back. I think that the fact that we’re starting with a phased-in approach, a smaller group of students, is allowing for a successful transition for our principals. A lot of people are nervous about the return to school, implementing the protocols. And so I think it’s easier when you come back with a smaller group of students to really get the rhythm. So I haven’t heard major concerns. Every school opening you have to deal with logistical things here and there, but overall it has met my expectations.

Parents and children line up outside George B. Armstrong International Studies Elementary School as students return to in-person learning at the Rogers Park neighborhood school on the North Side, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Chicago. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP) ORG XMIT: ILCHS602
Parents and children line up outside George B. Armstrong International Studies Elementary School as students return to in-person learning at the Rogers Park neighborhood school on the North Side, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Chicago. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP) ORG XMIT: ILCHS602
Ashlee Rezin Garcia, AP Photos

Staffing concerns

Sun-Times: As far as staffing goes, you said you feel the district is ready. There have been a lot of principals who, talking privately, they’re saying they’re worried about staffing. If a few teachers get sick, they don’t really have a backup plan. What do you say to those principals about their concerns over the next few weeks?

Jackson: We keep getting this question, and I don’t think it’s helpful in the aggregate, right? Because on the whole, we’re ready to go. Now obviously there’s schools that are outliers where we have concerns, and to your point, if a large number of teachers get sick, then yeah, we have to deal with that issue. But we have put those protocols in place, and I would say if you’re in a position where you’re having major concerns like that in a school, it probably would trigger some other kind of action. But for our part, I think the district has done a really good job matching the staff availability. Our principals are being extremely flexible at the ground level. You have some schools where maybe one first grade teacher is the remote teacher because they have an accommodation, and the person who’s in person is now teaching all the students that come. And so, if I thought that we didn’t have the staffing to reopen, we wouldn’t be in this position. Obviously, there are going to always be outliers and one-on-one situations that we have to address. And I think the district has been doing a good job addressing those.

New hires

Sun-Times: The 2,000 new hires you set out to make, the miscellaneous employees and the cadre substitutes, what are the obstacles to getting those hired? You’re only about halfway there, a little over halfway.

Jackson: With the miscellaneous employees, we’re close to getting to 1,000. I don’t have the exact number, but I know we’re closer than we are with cadres. And I feel like that’s a group where we’re going to nail that number. It’s more about getting individuals to know about the opportunities. I think we’re doing job fairs this week if I’m not mistaken. And so once we get them staffed, they’ll be deployed to schools and principals are able to identify people on the ground within their communities. So with miscellaneous staff, I feel very confident we’re going to meet those goals in short order.

The cadre group is the harder group to crack. You need teachers who, in some cases these are licensed teachers who may be licensed to teach in other areas, but we have them filling in in different spaces. And so I think that the talent office has done a really good job sourcing all of the people who could have supported us to do this work. But then we’re also now trying to be a little bit more aggressive in reaching directly out to people through LinkedIn and other mechanisms to get them signed on. So we’re closing in on our goal, but I do think that’s going to be a heavier lift than staffing the miscellaneous employees.

Sun-Times: For the miscellaneous employees, obviously it’s a pandemic and people need opportunities, but do you think any part of that is the job not being attractive with minimum wage and no benefits?

Jackson: No, well, I think people need to work. I don’t think that there’s more stuff you can do to sweeten the deal. I mean, you’ve got people who are either going to work during a pandemic or people who don’t yet feel comfortable coming into the building. But like I said, with the miscellaneous employees, I don’t have any concerns about us meeting those goals. I think it’s like anything else, it’s a large hiring lift and we’re working through it. The requirements to get the job are pretty low, so I think that we’ll be fine. With the cadre subs, that is a smaller pool of people. They have to have a degree, they have to have a certain background. And so it is a little bit more difficult attracting people, but we’re going to keep working hard to do that.

Vaccines and the fourth quarter

Sun-Times: You said that you’re hoping this is a successful third quarter and more families see that and opt in for the fourth. Do you expect staffing issues there if you’re already not to the pact of hiring you wanted?

Jackson: I think our staffing is going to be better. Because a lot of the accommodations are related to people with medical conditions, and the fact that we’ve been vaccinating people at such a fast clip, I think that that’s going to really help us. We’ve been offering vaccines now, we’re almost to 50% of our entire school-based staff, which I think is amazing. And with Joe Biden’s announcement this month about prioritizing teachers, hopefully more vaccine coming in, I have no doubt that we’re going to be able to meet that goal. And I know principals should expect to have even more staffing because we are getting people vaccine and therefore will be able to ask them to come back to work.

Sun-Times: So President Biden’s goal of every school worker getting at least one dose by the end of the month, you think CPS will meet that?

Jackson: We’re going to work hard to meet it. I think, first of all, I’m excited that he made that declaration publicly. Chicago Public Schools was already moving along nicely with our agreement with CTU to get people vaccinated. But we also feel really excited about the third vaccination that’s on the market, we think that that’s going to be a game-changer. We think the fact that the United Center and the county are offering more opportunities to vaccinate people. So because there’s more access to vaccine, which is something that we have been talking about for the past couple of months now, coupled with the system that we have set up individually for our employees, I think we’re in a really good position to meet that goal.

Sun-Times: There are a lot of schools that just don’t have the space to have 6 feet between desks. Do you think you’re going to be able to accommodate any students who do want to come back? Let’s say there are tens of thousands who are wanting to come back.

Jackson: We’ve tracked this across other spaces. Obviously, with COVID things change. I think we’ll be able to do it. In most cases, even in districts like in Florida and Texas where there’s always been a requirement to offer in-person all day, every day, you rarely see above 50% [of students returning], maybe around 60% or 65% at kind of the highest position. So I think we’ll be able to sustain that this year. There are going to be questions about what the fall looks like, and we will be looking to the CDC as well as [the Illinois State Board of Education] and [Illinois Department of Public Health] to provide guidance around how we do that. Of course, in our high schools that are much larger, it’ll be much more difficult to have students 6 feet apart the entire time. And I know that the people making decisions related to that are thinking about that. And we’re just looking for the guidance related to that. But right now CPS will implement the guidance with fidelity, and I think that if you have more parents wanting to come, I count that as a good problem. We would have to figure it out, we would have to look at alternative spaces. But right now, based on what we’ve seen in other school systems, I think we’ll be able to make it work with the number of people that will opt in.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson speaks with parents at Belmont-Cragin Elementary School on the Northwest Side during a roundtable discussion about the district’s transition to in-person learning, Tuesday morning, Jan. 19, 2021. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson speaks with parents at Belmont-Cragin Elementary School on the Northwest Side during a roundtable discussion about the district’s transition to in-person learning, Tuesday morning, Jan. 19, 2021. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times, Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

High school reopening plans

Sun-Times: Speaking of high schools, we’ve all talked and heard about the complexities with scheduling and mobility within the school. What’s the compromise there? How do you get to a plan that works? I imagine pods are a lot harder when kids have first, second, third period with different students.

Jackson: I think for us, we are now clear schools need to open. I heard the union president say he believes schools can open this year, so that’s great. We have to sit down at the table with them and figure out how to do it, and what those compromises are. So I’m not going to negotiate here, but we have started those conversations with them. And so we’ll hear what some of those concerns are and work with the union and our health officials to make a compromise. But we’re doing it with sports, we’re figuring things out. And my philosophy throughout this has always been, ‘We have to try, and we have to start.’ And I feel good that we’re finally in a position that we’re trying, and we’ve started, and now it’s time to figure it out and do it right.

Sun-Times: But aside from CTU negotiations, what does it look like for in-person high school? We haven’t seen an example — or many examples, we’ve seen some. But how do pods work if kids have classes in different periods?

Jackson: There are examples, the Catholic high schools are open. Right now, the way our plan — which we put out in August, that obviously we didn’t bring high schoolers back — we did talk about pods, we talked about creative scheduling where instead of kids having eight classes, maybe you have four on a given day or four in a semester, and that way you’re reducing the number of transitions. You can’t isolate students the way you can in an elementary school where everybody’s in one home room all day. But there are ways to limit the kind of interactions. So limiting open spaces like the lunch rooms, the gymnasium, things like that are some of the things that we’ve taken into consideration. But again, I think these are some of the things that CTU will have questions about, so I don’t want to start making proclamations about what it’s going to look like without having those discussions with them and hearing their concerns and suggestions.

Educational impact of the pandemic

Sun-Times: How worried are you about learning loss? Obviously, last spring there was missed time, this spring we know there are some students who aren’t being served well in remote learning.

Jackson: I’m happy that the press is acknowledging learning loss now because for a while people were acting like we were making it up. But obviously there’s a lot of research around learning loss as it relates to summer slide. People have studied other places where natural disasters have occurred and kids have been out of school for extended periods of time, like Puerto Rico, places that have had other natural disasters. So it is a big concern. And there’s a body of research that shows when kids are excluded from school, when they don’t have access to high quality teachers, that the learning is impacted. Couple that with what we already know about the disparities in learning here in Chicago between black students in particular, Latino students, white students and Asian students, I’m very concerned about that.

And so our Teaching and Learning Department right now is working on our “unfinished learning plan,” which is what we’re calling it. We don’t want to call it learning loss because the kids in many cases haven’t even had an opportunity to learn some of these things. They haven’t been presented with the information. And so we’re going to be putting out guidance around how we address that. What that’s going to look like will vary at each school level because we think the principals and LSCs and the teachers at the local level will have a better idea about what their students need in order to recover. But we’re going to be using our CARES money and stimulus money to support our students. And I want to be clear, the goal is not remediation. I think if we approach this with a remediation focus, kids are going to be set back. We have to make sure kids are presented with grade-level appropriate curriculum, and we have to provide as many resources and supports as possible to help them access that curriculum.

Sun-Times: What does that look like in terms of making up for some of that setback, however you want to put it? And I think the issue you mentioned, that people haven’t wanted to bring it up, some of the issues are families are saying they’re happy to make it through the pandemic, to have survived. And they want to get away from this sort of deficit language. And so do you acknowledge that, and is it part of your thinking to not put more pressure on kids because they’ve had all this happen over the past year?

Jackson: I think we have to address the SEL concerns that our students have and had prior to that. I reject the notion that having expectations around learning is putting undue pressure on students. White students and affluent students across this country have been learning and presented with opportunities throughout the pandemic, and it shouldn’t be an excuse for Black and Latino students, or poor students, not to have those opportunities. We have to work harder to do that. And anybody who signed up to work in an urban school setting understands that’s part of the job. So we have to attend to both those SEL concerns, the things that have been devastating throughout this pandemic, but we also can’t make excuses and leave our kids behind when their peers from more affluent communities and backgrounds are continuing to move ahead. They’re still taking the ACT, SAT, they’re still applying to colleges. The kids in CPS deserve the same opportunities.

Jackson’s future

Sun-Times: In terms of yourself and navigating this whole situation over the past year, how long do you see yourself sticking with CPS?

Jackson: I think I’ve proven throughout this process that I can handle everything that’s thrown my way. It hasn’t been an easy stint. I’ve been the CEO for the past three and a half years but in senior leadership for six. We’ve dealt with a financial crisis, sex abuse scandal, strike, almost two strikes. So CPS is a place that I’ve been my entire life, I love Chicago Public Schools, and I think that I’ve proven that I can lead through turbulent times. So I don’t have a timeline on anything. I’m here for the district, and as long as I’m here, I’m going to continue to do what I think is an exceptional job for the kids here in CPS.

I’m worn out like everyone else. It’s a pandemic, I’m not superwoman. I’m not going to sit here and act like I’m not impacted. I want my kids in school, I’m trying to do three different jobs like everybody else. But I know what I signed up for. And I think me, and I think my team is doing an exceptional job leading during this time.

Trust in the system

Sun-Times: A lot of families have said part of the reason they haven’t come back isn’t necessarily because of the data or the science, they understand that. But it’s because this idea of trust in the system. Why do you think that trust isn’t there, and do you think you’ve don’t enough to build trust with families?

Jackson: I think the trust has to be at the local level. If anybody’s waiting, if parents need me to tell them to send their kids to school, that’s never going to happen. Some people will listen to that, not everybody. But parents by and large trust their teachers, and they trust their principals. So throughout this process the places where we’ve seen higher opt-in rates, where we’ve seen parents signing up and we’ll continue to see those increase, is because they have strong relationships at the local level. I can’t tell you what’s happening in each school community. We set the vision, we set the policy, but it really is the amazing principals and teachers who really do the hard work of building and fostering that trust. As a school system, we have to do a better job of transparency and communication. I think we’ve made a lot of progress, but we still hear from people that they want more opportunities to weigh in before we make decisions, and we try to do that as much as possible. And I’ll continue to do more to have them weigh in before we make big decisions and big plans.