Chicago students will return to school buildings two days a week under tentative fall plan

CHICAGO — Chicago joins New York City in breaking rank with a slew of large districts nationally that have announced in recent days they intend to continue learning online exclusively.

Chicago Public Schools will aim to reopen their buildings for in-person learning at least part time this fall.

Pre-kindergarten and some special education students will attend school full-time, most high school juniors and seniors will learn fully online, and all other students will spend two days a week in school buildings, under a tentative plan the district released Friday.

Officials stressed what school ultimately looks like in the fall will hinge on the spread of the coronavirus and the advice of experts, with a final decision coming in late August. They said they will seek input from parents, teachers, and others on what they have called “a preliminary reopening framework” through an online survey and virtual meetings.

The district said it is taking a slew of measures to curb infections in its school buildings: grouping students in pods of roughly 15 students with spaced-out assigned seating, requiring face masks and daily temperature checks, hiring 400 additional custodians to deep clean schools, and more. And Chicago will allow any family to opt out of in-person learning altogether — even if students do not have medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable.

The guidance reflects a strong interest in providing at least some face-to-face instruction in the fall that both school chief Janice Jackson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot have voiced in recent weeks. In pursuing a blended approach, Chicago joins New York City in breaking rank with a slew of large districts nationally — from Los Angeles and San Diego to Houston to Broward County in Florida — that have announced in recent days they intend to continue learning online exclusively, often in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases in those communities.

“We aimed to create a draft framework that is flexible and capable of delivering high-quality instruction whether students are learning from home or at school,”  Jackson said in a statement.

The district’s teachers union earlier this week called for full-time virtual learning this fall, potentially setting educators on a collision course with district leaders. Union officials argued that the district cannot ensure a safe return to in-person instruction in September.

The union also released a report Wednesday calling for nearly 50 safety protocols if schools were to reopen, including smaller class “pods,” staggered start times, a nurse in every school, and free community contact tracing.

A recent union poll showed 85% of 4,800 members surveyed believe educators should not return to school buildings without extensive safety precautions, and roughly 40% said they do not believe in-person instruction should resume until after a coronavirus vaccine becomes available.

In a Thursday report, Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, an influential Chicago-based parent group, stopped short of taking a clear side in the in-person versus remote learning debate. But the group urged “extreme caution” in considering even a part-time return to school buildings and stressed that parents should be able to opt out of in-person learning.

District leaders said their plan allows the district to quickly shift to all-virtual instruction or full-time in-person learning depending on the course the pandemic takes in the fall.

“COVID-19 has been unpredictable from the start, but whatever form this challenge takes, I want everyone to know that education and learning will be happening this fall,” Lightfoot said in a statement.

Roughly half of district students will be in their school buildings on any given day under Chicago’s plan. The district is gearing up for a so-called “2-1-2 scheduling model,” in which groups of students spend the same two consecutive days each week at school and the same two days learning at home. On Wednesdays, all students will participate in live virtual instruction with their classroom teacher.

The district has bought 1.2 million reusable cloth masks for students and employees, 40,000 containers of disinfectant wipes for each classroom, and 22,000 touchless infrared thermometers. It’s working on a protocol to handle student and employee COVID-19 cases, with officials saying it might be possible to quarantine individual “pods” rather than entire schools.

Officials said the district will prioritize students’ social and emotional well being, and schools will be encouraged to safely welcome juniors and seniors who need extra academic or emotional support or who attend technical education and other programs that are tough to deliver remotely. Students in special education “cluster” programs — small groups of children who receive services separately from classmates — are slated to attend school in person every day.

The district said it is also taking steps to improve remote learning: It’s increasing the time students are expected to spend learning from four to five hours each day, tracking attendance more closely, and embracing the same Google learning platforms across the board.

Other urban school districts have also signaled that they are eyeing a hybrid of in-person classes and virtual learning in the fall. New York City announced that its schools would host in-person instruction from one to three days a week, in a bid to drastically lessen the number of students attending on any given day. Parents there also have the option to continue remote learning full time.

But this week saw a steady drumbeat of districts announcing that they plan to stick with full-time remote learning in light of a recent uptick in coronavirus infections in their areas.

State reopening guidelines that Illinois issued in June encouraged districts to provide as much in-person instruction as possible, especially for younger students, those with special needs, and English language learners. But they also gave districts a lot of flexibility to design their own approaches.

Many suburban districts have also started floating their plans for the fall (click here to find Chalkbeat Chicago’s reopening tracker). These districts are embracing a wide range of approaches, though most involve some blend of in-person and remote learning. Some, like Glenbrook, have tentatively suggested they will stick with all-virtual learning.

Others, such as Community Unit School District 300 in Algonquin and Oswego, are gearing up for full-time in-person instruction for elementary and, in some cases, middle school students. Joliet Township High School District 204 will give families a choice between remote learning and a hybrid model.

Chicago officials said their draft framework was informed by a survey of 50,000 parents and 25 focus groups with students, parents, and employees. The public can weigh in on the tentative guidelines through a new survey or at one of five virtual meetings held from July 27 to July 31.

In Chicago, district officials stressed remote learning will continue to play a role in the foreseeable future, and the district could shift back to full-time online instruction in the event of a spike in coronavirus cases. The city recently announced the $50 million, four-year “Chicago Connected,” a new initiative to provide high-speed broadband internet to as many as 100,000 district students. The goal is to sign up as many of the eligible low-income students as possible before the school year starts this fall.

Chicago recently kicked off all-virtual summer school, which offers a chance to students who received “incompletes” in some of their classes this past spring to make up the work and receive credit. The experience could offer some insights into how to better provide instruction and engage students remotely in the fall.

District leaders have said they are taking a more centralized, streamlined approach, with all students using the same digital learning platforms and sticking to the same schedules. They have not released any enrollment or attendance data yet.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Mila Koumpilova, Chalkbeat Chicago


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