CHICAGO — After weeks of defending a proposal to reopen Chicago Public Schools this fall, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools CEO Janice Jackson announced Wednesday that the new school year will begin with remote learning instead.
But it will feel different than in the spring, when CPS was “cobbling things together,” Jackson said. Attendance will be mandatory, the district will revert to normal grading, and educators can go to schools and teach in real time from their classrooms, she said.
“There will be more of a traditional infrastructure that you see in a school setting; we’re going to stand that up in a remote setting,” she said. “ … Teachers have to be available throughout the entire day to educate students.”
Jackson said a final plan will be released Friday.
Officials said the decision to backtrack was based on public health guidelines and feedback from parents, and that the district will aim to move to a hybrid model, with schools open, in the second quarter, which begins Nov. 9.
“In a perfect world, students would be in classrooms more, not less. But, unfortunately, that is not where we find ourselves today,” Jackson said at a news conference announcing the district’s change of course.
Having touted their initial hybrid plan, which would have rotated students into buildings two days a week for in-person classes, CPS officials also said all along that they wouldn’t reopen schools unless it’s safe to do so.
Against a backdrop of rising COVID-19 cases in the city, through a series of virtual town halls last week and feedback from parents and students, it became clear families “were not comfortable with the state of the pandemic and the national response,” Jackson said.
The official announcement came the day after word got out that the Chicago Teachers Union was planning on calling its House of Delegates together to consider a possible strike vote because of the union’s skepticism that schools could reopen safely.
Lightfoot on Wednesday said pressure from the union did not influence the decision to go remote.
“As we have now repeatedly said about every decision we’ve made in the context of this pandemic, we have to be guided by the science, period,” Lightfoot said.
Yet as reports surfaced late Tuesday of the expected move to remote learning, CTU President Jesse Sharkey tweeted: “A win for teachers, students and parents. It’s sad that we have to strike or threaten to strike to be heard.”
The latest threat came just months after CTU’s battles with the mayor surrounding the 11-day teacher walkout last fall.
This summer, even before CPS announced its tentative hybrid framework, the union had already endorsed an all-remote start to the new school year, and continued to push back against the proposal.
On Wednesday, Sharkey — who days ago said Lightfoot did “not have the guts to close the schools” — congratulated the mayor “for being willing to listen to the concerns of families, educators, community groups and health professionals.”
With one month left before the school year begins, he called for CTU members to be equal partners in improvements to remote learning, family outreach and staff support.
“We have a long way to go and a short time to get there,” Sharkey said. “CPS must immediately start planning transparently and in partnership with our union to provide every student the educational, social and emotional supports they need to learn and grow.”
The union is also continuing its campaign for broader community supports that could improve the livelihoods of students and educators, drawing attention to a moratorium on evictions now set to expire Aug. 22.
Parents, who appeared more mixed on the question of reopening, have expressed concerns about the quality of remote learning but also about whether schools could open their doors again safely, even with the 15-student pods that were planned to reduce contact among students and other protocols such as mask-wearing.
Ultimately, only about 20% of Black and Latino families, who make up the majority of CPS students, indicated in a feedback survey that they intended to send their children back to school. District officials said they’re acting on that feedback to improve the remote learning experience.
More than 87,000 parents, students and educators responded to the survey. About 41% of 49,000 elementary school parents and 38% of nearly 20,000 high school parents who responded said they did not intend to send their children back to school when the new year begins Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day.
CPS continues to struggle to get feedback representative of the district as a whole. Nearly 30% of parents who responded to the online survey were white, compared with 11% of the student population, according to CPS data.
CPS also faced growing pressure in recent weeks from union and parent groups to close schools.
But as recently as Tuesday, Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Public Health Department, spoke in support of the tentative reopening plan, saying that if the city’s pandemic numbers looked good, she felt schools could handle in-person learning safely.
Then on Wednesday, she cited the increases in recent weeks of the rolling average number of new cases reported daily in Chicago. That number is now 277.
“The fact that over the last four to five weeks, we’ve added between 80 and 100 (daily) cases and not seen signs of that turning around, makes us concerned as we’re planning ahead for a complicated school district like CPS,” Arwady said. “ … We very easily could have that or more in the month ahead.”
Arwady said the prospect of hitting 400 new cases a day would really mark “a line in the sand for us, particularly around major things like planning to open one of the largest school districts in the country.”
About 3,527 children 17 and younger have tested positive for COVID-19 out of more than 62,000 confirmed cases in Chicago, according to city data.
The city was in a “very different place in the arc of the pandemic” when they released the hybrid plan in mid-July, Lightfoot said.
“Make no mistake, here in Chicago we are in a better place than most other areas in the country and in the surrounding area,” the mayor said. “But the fact of the matter is, we are seeing an increase in cases. Combined with the trends that we’re seeing, the decision to start remotely makes sense for a district of CPS’s size and diversity.”
The district and others are working on a plan to support parents who need child care during the day, knowing many are essential workers, and CPS will continue providing grab-and-go meals at schools, Jackson said.
Parents should expect engagement from teachers “for the entirety of a typical school day,” the district said, with more live instruction. CPS is pushing for more small group instruction for English learners and students with special education plans, and is “encouraging” more office hours to support all students, Jackson said. All teachers will be required to use Google platforms.
“Enhanced standards” for remote learning will also involve more rigorous tracking of attendance and renewed efforts to bridge the digital divide — a huge challenge when roughly a third of the 300,000 students who attend district-run schools were found to lack adequate access to computers or internet after the pandemic forced schools shut in March.
Since then, the district distributed about 128,000 computers and tablets, but officials said Wednesday they will continue to work to provide more as needed.
Despite the district’s efforts, participation in remote learning during the spring varied dramatically for students with different learning needs or racial backgrounds. Only 13% of students in grades one through 12 logged into a Google platform at least three days per week for at least 10 weeks of the remote learning period, with white and Asian students engaging the most.
Katherine O’Brien is a parent and Local School Council member at LaSalle Language Academy, and her husband is a CPS teacher.
“I’m on one level relieved; I’m also really sad,” she said of Wednesday’s announcement. “I think we all really, really wanted the returns to schools. We all wanted something to work out. We also recognize that’s not feasible at this time, it’s not physically safe yet at this point.”
Despite some disappointment, O’Brien said she’s glad a decision has been made.
“The time that we spent debating this reopening plan that really didn’t feel like it was ready to go, I think it caused a lot of families an excessive amount of anxiety and stress and frustration. I think parents and teachers alike were paralyzed with indecision. They were split trying to plan for multiple contingencies, and doing that for a long time is exhausting,” she said.
Jackson said the decision was not easy or made lightly. “As an educator, my desire is to always have students in schools. For many of our students, school is the safest and most stable part of their day. Of course, they depend on us for an education, but many of our students depend on us for so much more. They rely on us for meals, encouragement and a lot of other things that some people take for granted.”
Though CPS allowed sports programs to start practicing over the summer, that has largely stopped, Jackson said.
“It’s pretty safe to say that’s probably what the fall is going to look like,” Jackson said. But she said CPS officials are waiting to see how state guidelines change.
Bob Geiger, boys cross country coach at Whitney Young Magnet High, said he hadn’t received any official word on fall sports and was optimistic the season would still take place, noting that the Illinois High School Association and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration have both approved the resumption of youth sports if safety protocols are followed.
Some high school sports perceived to be at higher risk, such as football and boys soccer, have been moved to the spring, while the lower-risk sports of cross-country, golf, and girls tennis and swimming remain in the fall.
Geiger said he had about 45 boys practicing outdoors for three weeks in small, socially distanced groups. He takes the boys’ temperatures and quizzes them about their health, and so far, he said, none of his runners has tested positive for COVID-19.
He said the safety concerns of a sport like his are distinct from the challenges of bringing children back to crowded school buildings.
“You’re taking a group of 50 boys to a field where they’ll be able to spread out, and yet they can still interact, they’re still getting that social-emotional connection many parents are clamoring for,” he said. “There’s a way to do that safely as opposed to cramming 2,100 students into a school and hoping for the best.”
Jean Casserly, girls tennis coach at Walter Payton College Prep, said she, too, has heard nothing from CPS about canceling the fall season.
“I just picked up my permit for the court,” she said. “I start Monday. Unless someone tells me otherwise, we’ll be there.”
She said the IHSA has yet to send her safety guidelines for her sport, so she has crafted her own, including chalking off areas where the girls must stay, masks on, when they’re not playing. She’s still deciding whether each player must have her own designated stash of tennis balls, as some professionals are doing.
If the season does commence, she said, she anticipates the hardest part will be making sure the players, who have not seen one another in months and had their last season cut short because of the teachers strike, do not get too close to one another.
But she was hopeful she could impress upon them the importance of adhering to safety precautions.
“If any one of us gets COVID, we’re going to be shut down,” she said. “This is what we’ll have to do in order to continue.”
Alderman Michael Scott, who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Education and Child Development, said his children have had their sports seasons canceled and were excited about the hybrid model. But though she desperately wants to go back to school, his soccer-playing daughter understands the science doesn’t allow for that yet, he said.
“As a parent, I was really scared to send my child back to school,” Scott said. “And I know that there are a lot of parents, a lot of teachers, were also afraid of what was going to happen. I think this gives us the opportunity to reset ourselves, to let us understand what the data is showing.”
Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said CPS’ decision to start the year with all-remote learning was a local one and in line with the state’s policy of letting school districts control how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic with public health guidance from the state.
But he warned that if cases and positivity rates continued on an upward trajectory in the state, it was possible he would order schools closed to in-person learning statewide as he did on April 17.
“That could happen, yes. I don’t want it to happen,” Pritzker said.
“You’ve seen me travel the state encouraging everybody to wear a mask, encouraging local city councils and mayors to impose mitigations locally so that we can bring down the infection rate, bring down the positivity rate because I don’t want to go to those statewide, more extreme measures,” he said. “If it continues to rise and if we don’t keep our positivity rate down, we obviously would have to consider more serious mitigations.”
(Chicago Tribune’s Rick Pearson contributed to this story.)
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