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CPS students who have stayed home with COVID-19 fears can return at any time, schools officials say

CPS officials say students are not technically being unenrolled from their schools and can claim their seat at any time.

The Chicago Board of Education meets for its monthly meeting at Chicago Public Schools headquarters in the Loop, Wednesday morning, Sept. 22, 2021.
The Chicago Board of Education meets for its monthly meeting at Chicago Public Schools headquarters in the Loop, Wednesday morning, Sept. 22, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Families that opted against returning to schools this fall because of lingering COVID-19 anxiety are not technically being unenrolled from their schools and can claim their seat at any time — as long as they go back to in-person learning, Chicago Public Schools officials said Wednesday.

A fraction of parents who have had ongoing concerns with sending their children back to schools — particularly because of younger kids’ inability to get vaccinated and rising Delta variant worries — have demanded a remote learning option so their students can continue their education while having the peace of mind of safety in their home.

The district is only offering online learning to those with verifiable medical vulnerabilities and those in quarantine because of in-school exposure, per state guidelines. Some of those who have chosen to keep their kids home rather than return to school have reported receiving notices that they were unenrolled.

Michael Thorpe, the father of a senior at Chicago Vocational High School, told the Board of Education at its monthly meeting Wednesday that he was worried his son would be failed out of school.

Thorpe said he made the decision to keep his son home because of COVID-19 concerns, particularly after Thorpe felt the personal impact of losing his mother to the virus. Wednesday was his son’s 16th school day at home, and he has been denied access to virtual lessons, paper homework and a laptop, with the principal suggesting transferring or homeschooling were his only options, Thorpe said.

“Come on. My son is a senior, he’s already accepted [into college],” he said. “All he needs is to complete a year and he gets his diploma. The kids are suffering because there’s not a remote option for students that are just scared.”

After several parents shared similar experiences, Board of Education President Miguel del Valle asked CPS officials to clarify what happens in those circumstances.

Zakieh Mohammed, who manages attendance and truancy for CPS, said students who chose not to return because of pandemic anxiety have been deactivated from their school rosters, which is different than being unenrolled. With deactivation, those children can return to their schools at any time, but while they’re away, absences won’t count on their record, she said.

Officials said they’re conducting home visits for students who haven’t reenrolled in school this year, and school principals and educators are “vigorously” working different lines of communication to reach those families and convince them to return. Still, a remote option would not be offered, officials said.

CPS also announced its first-day attendance rate Wednesday — three weeks after the start of the school year — but didn’t release overall enrollment figures. About 91% of students attended classes Aug. 30, the district said, around 3% fewer than previous in-person school years and 2% less than the last time classes started before Labor Day.

But without enrollment data, it’s hard to get a clear picture of the meaning behind that attendance rate. It remains possible that enrollment could once again have significantly dropped. Officials said they would release that information by next week and didn’t answer board members’ questions about it.

Nonetheless, CPS data strategist Sara Kempner told the school board Wednesday that officials “are proud of our attendance rates as we start the school year.

“Our top priority over the summer was to re-engage families, and we believe these numbers represent our successful efforts,” she said.