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In-person school should be ‘mandatory’ for CPS students in the fall, CPS CEO says

Mayor Lori Lightfoot also expressed confidence in the way the pandemic is headed — particularly with vaccines expected to be approved for more children soon.

Students walk down the hall at Nicholas Senn High School in the Edgewater neighborhood, Friday afternoon, April 23, 2021.
Students walk down the hall at Nicholas Senn High School in the Edgewater neighborhood, Friday afternoon, April 23, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Students should be required to attend full-time, in-person school in the fall as long as they don’t have medical conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19, outgoing Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson said this week.

Speaking at a virtual parent town hall alongside Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Jackson was asked what she expects next school year to look like and whether parents will have the option to keep their kids remote.

“Given where we are with vaccinations and guidance from the CDC, and our desire just to see our kids back in school knowing that this last year has taken a toll on some of our students academically, we want a return to full daily instruction in our schools,” Jackson said at the event Thursday. “We want to move away from the hybrid. And so that’s what we’re focused on and that’s what we’re marching towards.

“I think that there’s still an outstanding question about how parents opt in. I think school should be mandatory for all students in a brick and mortar building as it was pre-pandemic, but we also know that there are some students who have medical conditions where we have to take a closer look at that before it’s mandatory for them.”

School board President Miguel del Valle (left), CPS CEO Janice Jackson (center left), Mayor Lori Lightfoot (center right) and deputy mayor for education Sybil Madison (right) answer parent questions at a virtual town hall Thursday.
School board President Miguel del Valle (left), CPS CEO Janice Jackson (center left), Mayor Lori Lightfoot (center right) and deputy mayor for education Sybil Madison (right) answer parent questions at a virtual town hall Thursday.
Chicago Public Schools

Jackson said the district learned this year how to operate schools safely, and believed “this reopening has gone well.” That experience and a historic amount of incoming federal relief funding allows a return to five-day schedules and leaves “no reason we can’t open schools in the fall,” she said.

Since K-8 in-person classes resumed at the start of March, there have been 350 confirmed COVID-19 cases among adults at CPS schools and 263 cases among students, according to district records. About 86,000 students and thousands more teachers and staff have returned.

Jackson’s administration is expected to release a plan for the fall before she leaves her post at the end of June, but she won’t be running the district when school resumes in August.

And the district will need to get the Chicago Teachers Union on board, which said in a statement that for a fall return to be successful, the mayor, CPS and the union need to work together over the summer to engage the vast majority of families that so far have opted to stay remote and “address the obstacles they confront to sending their children back to school.

“Anything less is tantamount to allowing a push-out of those children and families when they most need support,” CTU leaders said.

At the parent townhall, Lightfoot was a bit more noncommittal than Jackson, but she also expressed confidence in the way the pandemic is headed — particularly with vaccines expected to be approved soon for 12-15 year olds. Students aged 16 and up are already eligible.

“I feel comfortable about where the future lies, but it depends on the actions that we take now,” the mayor said. “We need people to get vaccinated. We need them to continue to follow the public health guidance.

“But based upon what we see as a trajectory going forward, we feel very comfortable that we’re going to be in a position to open up the schoolhouse doors full-time for our young people starting this fall.”

Lightfoot did not say whether she believes remote learning should remain an option for families.

How to implement a return to full in-person schooling will likely be on the list of questions to any candidate interviewed for the CEO job by the mayor and the city’s contracted search firm. Lightfoot said she expects families to have some input on Jackson’s successor through surveys and potentially candidate town halls.