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New CPS CEO says he’ll explore remote learning options but makes no promises

Pedro Martinez also said beefing up surveillance testing for COVID is a top priority.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez smiles during a press conference where he, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady and Ald. Michael Scott (24th) gave an update about COVID-19 infections and protocols in Chicago Public Schools at City Hall in the Loop, Thursday morning, Sept. 30, 2021.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez speaks during a press conference where he, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady and Ald. Michael Scott (24th) gave an update about COVID-19 infections and protocols in Chicago Public Schools at City Hall in the Loop, Thursday morning, Sept. 30, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

In his first comments as the leader of Chicago Public Schools, new CEO Pedro Martinez committed Thursday to exploring the possibility of expanding remote learning options for parents who don’t yet feel comfortable sending their children back to school — but he stressed there were no promises those inquiries would yield a change.

“I am going to be looking at what our capacity is to expand remote options,” he said at a City Hall news conference on his second day on the job. “If we can accommodate our families, I would like to do that.

“In-person school is where children need to be, that’s where they should be,” Martinez added, being clear in his belief “children that were learning remote last year did not do well academically, their mental health, their social and emotional well-being suffered.

“But I’m recognizing that there’s anxiety in our families. That’s why I need to at least look at what we’re able to do. And for me, it really is a bridge to when our children become eligible for vaccines.”

CPS has only offered full-time virtual learning to students with medical conditions, and temporarily to those who test positive for COVID-19 or are forced to quarantine because of exposure to a case.

Martinez said he didn’t “think it’s fair for us to say we can’t look at expanding remote options.”

His message was a stark departure from the hard denial of a remote learning option by Mayor Lori Lightfoot over the summer and to start the fall, and even dating back to former CEO Janice Jackson’s final days with the district.

While Martinez was careful not to over-promise changes, it was the first time a city or district official said they would consider parents’ requests for a virtual option.

“So that is something that, I’m committed, I will be looking at in the next few days,” he said. “And then again, I’ll report what I’m learning, what our capacity is. But parents just need to understand, to have a quality remote option, you can’t just have a remote option that is, frankly, virtual babysitting. I’m not in favor of that.

“To bring up a quality program, it takes time. So again, I will ask for grace. But I’m looking at that right now, I will ask those questions, I will see what our capacity is. But the No. 1 goal is reducing anxiety for our parents.”

A group of parents that has demanded a remote option this fall, some of whom haven’t sent their kids back to school and have since been deactivated from CPS’ enrollment, wrote in a statement after Martinez’s comments they were “hopeful and feel like CPS is finally responding” to their concerns.

The new CEO, speaking alongside Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, also addressed the rough start to CPS’ year that has included a delayed COVID testing program, spotty contact tracing and thousands of children exposed to the virus in schools and subsequently quarantined.

Arwady and Martinez said the district would finally be expanding surveillance testing of students to all schools by the end of the week, though Arwady said the program’s capacity would continue to grow and indicated not all students who have agreed to be tested would receive a test every week.

Coming into the school year, CPS had announced it was “committed to testing 100% of CPS students and staff each week” — but after little promotion of the program very few students have signed up. Martinez said beefing up testing is one of his top priorities.

CPS and CDPH also vowed to improve the district’s online COVID-19 data reporting. An online dashboard was revamped Thursday to show for the first time the number of students and educators quarantined because of in-school exposure on any given day.

A piece of data that was removed from the tracker was the number of people exposed to the virus each day. Officials said the quarantine numbers would more accurately represent the virus’ impact on the school system since vaccinated people don’t have to quarantine when they’re identified as a close contact to a case.

As of the latest available data, 281 adults and 6,322 students were in quarantine. This week there have been 27 adults and 104 students who tested positive for COVID-19 in the district, a small fraction of the 35,000 workers and 290,000 students at non-charter schools. Since the start of the school year, 1,101 students and 343 adults have tested positive.

Among the approximately 16,000 students who have quarantined after an exposure at school since the start of the school year, just over 205 have later reported positive COVID-19 tests to the district, Arwady said.

“Even with a lot of looking for cases and extra attention, the rates that we are seeing in schools are not unexpected, and the schools remain safe from a COVID perspective,” she said.

“When I see some of what’s being reported in the media, I think people worry that there are enormous outbreaks, hundreds of kids, thousands of infections and a lot of spread within school. We absolutely are not seeing it.”

Asked about getting a deal done with the Chicago Teachers Union in ongoing negotiations over a safety agreement, Martinez said that was on his list of priorities but that he’d be realistic and upfront about disagreements.

For one, he didn’t think the union’s stance on social distancing — that 6 feet should be ensured whenever possible — was possible if all schools were to remain open. Federal and state officials changed their guidance to 3 feet of distancing for this year.

“It’s not realistic and, frankly, it’s not aligned with the science,” he said.

Martinez said he nonetheless knows there are problems to fix at CPS, and he plans to address concerns to make families feel comfortable.

“I know things have happened in the past, but I’m here now,” Martinez said. “I own this now. And we’re going to make this better.”