By CBS 2 Chicago Staff

CHICAGO (CBS)– Chicago Public Schools announced a plan to reopen schools for students in pre-k and some special education cluster programs later in the second quarter, while all other students would continue with remote learning.

“We believe that we can safely reopen schools for pre-K students and students enrolled in our moderate and intensive cluster programs … in the second quarter,” CPS Chief Executive Officer Janice Jackson said Friday afternoon.

In a letter to parents, CPS officials said while remote learning has “improved dramatically” since classes first went virtual in the spring, preschool students and students in moderate and intensive special education cluster programs “cannot be served well enough in any remote learning format.”

“Our teachers are definitely doing a phenomenal job with online learning, but it is not ideal for any student, especially our very young students, and our students in cluster programs,” CPS Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade said.

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The plan to resume in-person classes for preschoolers and many special education students comes as CPS has seen a drastic drop in enrollment, attendance, and engagement among those students.

“CPS is not alone with what we are dealing with right now. All over the country, we’re seeing students falling behind, with the greatest impact concentrated among the nation’s youngest learners,” McDade said.

According to CPS, pre-K enrollment this school year is down 44% for African American students, 29% for Latinx students, 22% for White students, and 9% for Asian students.

“Providing in-person instruction to our most vulnerable students is truly an issue of equity, and we will do everything within our power to ensure that these students are properly served,” Jackson said.

CPS said their phased reopening plan will bring back preschool and most special education students for five days a week of in-person learning, while all other students will continue remote learning for the second quarter. CPS said some of specialty schools may follow a hybrid model.

Parents who are not ready to send preschool or special education students back to in-person learning can opt out and continue remote learning. An intent form will be sent our to families with students in pre-k or cluster programming to determine “how many families are comfortable sending children back to school.” The intent form must be completed by Oct. 28.

Jackson said CPS will continue to explore a phased-in approach for all other students, hopefully at the beginning of 2021.

The Chicago Teachers Union also is pushing back, calling the district’s plan “dangerous.”

“CPS has rejected every Union proposal to improve remote learning for all students, or to improve services for the district’s most vulnerable special needs children,” CTU said in a written statement.

The union said Mayor Lori Lightfoot has not been forthcoming with the number of COVID cases in the district.

“How can educators and parents possibly trust that CPS will keep them safe if it won’t even be honest and transparent about the risks to safety that we are all facing together,” CTU deputy general counsel Thad Goodchild said.

Some parents also don’t think in-person classes are safe yet.

“I plan to keep my kids remote until Chicago gets COVID under control, and fairly funds our schools. Our schools, our kids are worth it,” said CPS parent Monica Espinoza.

“CPS should not be making parents choose between the safety and health of their children versus their education,” parent Jazmin Cerda said.

The announcement from CPS comes just one day after the Chicago Department of Public Health reported the city’s seven-day rolling average of new COVID cases has risen 32% in the past week. Statewide, Illinois saw the highest number of cases in a single day of testing on Thursday, with 4,015 new cases. The statewide positivity rate is now up to 4.9%, the highest it’s been since June 8.

CPS Chief Operating Officer Arnie Rivera said cloth masks will be provided at school buildings for all students, teachers, and staff at all times. Students and staff also will be divided into pods to allow for social distancing and to make contact tracing easier

Temperature checks, hand washing, and daily symptom screenings will be required before students enter the classroom. Free testing will be available for any student or staff with symptoms, or has had close contact with someone else who has tested positive for the virus.

A disinfectant sprayer will be provided at every CPS school, and additional custodians being hired to clean schools, Rivera said. Hand sanitizing stations also will be provided at all schools, and the district is assessing every classroom to ensure they are properly ventilated. Rivera said CPS has spent more than $65 million to promote proper ventilation, and will ensure the district only uses classrooms that are properly ventilated.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said she’s confident CPS has a safe plan to bring Pre-K and special education students back for in-classroom instruction.

“I’m a pediatrician, if I thought this plan was dangerous, I obviously would not be supporting it,” she said.

Arwady said, for months, her team has worked to investigate any COVID infection diagnosed in Chicago children, and has investigated cases associated with daycare, childcare, athletic settings, and summer camps.

“What we have learned related to children, and to risk in schools and childcare settings has been one of the few good news stories of this pandemic,” Arwady said. “The data shows us that, when the proper precautions are taken, transmission in these settings is rare.”

She also noted the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago has approximately 20,000 students attending in school in person, along with 2,700 teachers and staff. Arwady said, while there have been COVID cases in 31 schools, in most cases just one, meaning they don’t see transmission within the school.

Arwady said data collected by CDPH shows much higher rates of COVID-19 spread in settings outside of schools.

“Study after study has found that U.S. daycares and schools with protection measures in place have not been as significant a source of spread of COVID-19 as we had earlier feared,” she said. “Where schools have strong mitigation practices in place, and a rigorous commitment to maintaining them the risk of COVID spread is low, and often lower than it is in the community at large.”

Arwady acknowledged COVID cases are currently on the rise in Chicago, throughout state, and throughout country, but infection rates are still well below the peak period in May. Hospitalizations and deaths in Chicago also are down about 90% of what was seen during the peak

“If we end up needing to put stricter restrictions in place to control the outbreak, we absolutely will. This could include leading to delay further in-person education,” she said.