CPS plans to offer full-time, in-person learning in the fall

The district revealed its fall plans at the same time it released next year’s school-level budgets, which feature funding to address pandemic impacts.

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Preschool teacher Erin Berry greets students as they walk into Dawes Elementary School in Chicago, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021.

No Chicago Public Schools students have been back daily since schools closed because of the coronavirus 13 months ago.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Chicago Public Schools students will have the option of returning to classrooms full time in the fall, district officials announced Wednesday, in what will be the largest step yet toward the resumption of pre-pandemic schooling.

Though a few thousand preschool and special education students started learning in person five days per week in January, the vast majority of CPS students have not been able to attend daily since schools closed because of COVID-19 conditions 13 months ago.

Students in all grades will have that choice available to them to start next school year, while families uncomfortable or unable to return will still be allowed to learn remotely, CPS leaders said. Few other details were immediately available.

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“To ensure the district’s plans are aligned to the needs of families, CPS will be engaging families in the weeks ahead to help develop specific plans for the upcoming school year,” CPS said in a news release.

An expanded reopening will have to be negotiated with the Chicago Teachers Union, however, because the district’s current agreements with the union only apply to this school year, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said through a spokeswoman. Those talks have not been held, Sharkey said.

It was a winding road to this week’s milestone of every non-charter school reopening its doors for in-person learning, with tough CTU negotiations leading to extra health and safety precautions that alleviated some workers’ and parents’ concerns.

And challenges likely remain to make full-time, in-person classes a reality for the fall. The district will need to prioritize helping eligible high school students get vaccinated over the summer as advocated for by the CTU and outlined in the district’s reopening agreement with the union. Workers who want a COVID-19 shot will almost certainly have received one by the fall.

$225 million budget increase

The district announced its fall plans at the same time it released next year’s school-level budgets, which grew $225 million compared to last year. Highlights of the school budgets included the distribution of the first, small chunk of federal relief funds to address pandemic needs and dollars to offset COVID-19 induced enrollment drops. There was also money for teacher pay raises and additional nurse, social worker and special education case manager positions in alignment with the hiring schedule outlined in the 2019 CTU contract.

“An unprecedented year has called for unprecedented investments in the lives of our students and our city’s future,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement. “This budget is emblematic of CPS’s unwavering commitment to ensuring our young people have the educational, mental and emotional supports they need to thrive today, tomorrow and well into the future.”

CPS officials said 94% of schools — 482 of 513 — will see increases in their budgets, in large part due to the inclusion of $70 million in federal coronavirus relief funding — an initial drop in the bucket from nearly $3 billion the district received through three bills passed by Congress last year.

Principals can decide for themselves how to use that extra money as long as it supports COVID-19 recovery programs, such as tutoring, summer school and after school programs, officials said.

CPS to lay out plans for federal funding

CPS CEO Janice Jackson made it seem unlikely there would be a formal role for parents and the teachers union in deciding how the rest of the federal funding would be spent — both groups have demanded a seat at the table in that budgeting — as she said a comprehensive spending plan would be announced in the weeks ahead. Jackson said the federal funds would be of significant help — calling them “the largest investment that school systems have received, probably ever” — but she also tempered expectations, noting the money would be used over multiple years and in addition to student support would cover budget gaps and school reopening expenses.

The district continued to use the “student-based budgeting” formula this year, which critics have said leads to inequitable resourcing of schools. But as it did the past two years, CPS tried to fill in the gaps with targeted funding to make up for enrollment-related budget cuts, particularly for schools that lost extra students during the pandemic.

And for the first time, CPS partnered with the University of Illinois at Chicago to create an “opportunity index” similar to the evidence-based funding formula adopted by the state a few years ago. Schools with greater student needs received additional money based on their number of special education and homeless students, the school’s teacher retention rate and community hardship, which is based on other factors. In all, 401 schools received so-called “equity grants” worth a total of $66 million, up from $44 million to 255 schools last year.

The budgets released Wednesday identify how much money each principal will be given to spend at their school. A districtwide, centralized budget will be released this summer and will include money for building renovations and other special projects.

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