CHICAGO (CBS) — Under a plan announced Tuesday, all Chicago Public Schools students will go on with remote learning for the rest of 2020 — but some students will return in person January, and students from kindergarten through eighth grade will return in February.
For high school students, remote learning will continue and no in-person return date has been set.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the plan Tuesday. The first students to return on Jan. 11 will be pre-kindergarten classes, and for students in intensive and moderate cluster classrooms for students who require special education.
K-8 students will return Feb. 1.
The Mayor’s office said the district is prepared to offer in-person learning safely at this time, but beginning in January instead will minimize disruptions and allow students to quarantine after the holidays.
CPS said for too many Chicago families – particularly Black and Latinx families – remote learning has not worked out well enough, and opening classrooms will ensure the highest-need learners will receive better access to education.
“While remote learning has allowed many of our students to continue their studies over the past eight months, the reality is that our Black and Latinx students, our youngest students and highest-need learners have not been equitably served,” Mayor Lightfoot said in a news release. “The decision to begin in-person learning this January will restore their access to high-quality instruction and is the result of balancing our commitment to equity with our current public health situation. The health of our students, their families and our school communities remain our top priority, and we will continue to work closely with CPS and CDPH to ensure their safety as they transition back to the classroom.”
The Mayor’s office noted that COVID-19 cases are rising in many areas – including the city of Chicago and throughout the state of Illinois. But the Mayor’s office also said many states, as well as European countries, have kept schools open because mitigation efforts have proved successful.
The Mayor’s office also said schools have not been found to be a significant source of COVID-19 transmission.
“It’s our moral imperative to do everything in our power to safely open schools beginning with our youngest and highest-needs learners, and the decision to re-open in January will ensure that Black and Latinx families — many of whom are essential workers and cannot ensure their children are fully supported through remote learning — have more equitable access to instruction this year,” CPS Chief Executive Officer Dr. Janice K. Jackson said in the release. “While we are eager to open our doors as soon as possible, beginning in-person learning in January is the right decision because it will minimize learning disruption from planned breaks and allow time for students and staff to limit activity prior to resuming in-person learning.”
High school students – except those in special education – will continue remote learning into 2021. CPS will evaluate in-person learning options for those students during the new year.
The announcement came as Gov. JB Pritzker announced tighter restrictions going into effect statewide effective Friday. In alignment with those restrictions, there will be no more high school sports effective that date.
A handful of sports – including bowling, cheer, dance, and boys’ swimming and diving – had previously had the green light to move forward for the winter.
The Mayor’s office did acknowledge that a rapidly increasing COVID-19 case count is a concern for schools – particularly given the risks for exposures outside of school – hence the phased approach that is planned for the return to in-person learning.
CPS and the Chicago Department of Public Health said they are looking for a 50 percent improvement in case doubling time – meaning as of now a doubling time of at least 18 days rather than the current 12 in Chicago – to indicate that in-person instruction can begin.
“We’re in the midst of this second surge right now and there’s no doubt the trends we see are very concerning. We want to get to a more stable place with community spread before bringing students and staff back to school,” Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said in the release. “Once we do see more stability, even if case rates remain relatively high, I’m confident in-person learning can work and be safely done.”
Stringent public health measures will also be in place at schools – such as a mask requirement, daily symptom screenings, pods or small class sizes for student and teachers, HEPA filters and air quality assessments, and a contact tracing program.
The city is also setting up a COVID-19 testing surveillance program for staff.
Parents may continue to opt for remote learning after in-person school resumes.
The Chicago Teachers Union slammed the plan late Tuesday, calling it arbitrary as well as dangerous. The union said the announcement was made, “per usual,” without inputs from parents, students, or teachers, and called it “wholly de-linked” from any health care criteria.
“Today’s announcement appears to be based on the mayor’s political agenda, because it sure isn’t based on science,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a news release. “Just unilaterally picking an arbitrary date in the future and hoping everything works out is a recipe for disaster.”
The union said since school clerks, technology coordinators, security guards, and other workers returned to work in school buildings, more than 150 schools have reported COVID-19 cases.
“You don’t make decisions about somebody’s else’s children in back rooms. You need stakeholder input, family buy-in to give parents confidence and a uniform, collaborative plan to make it work. Instead, we have the worst possible leadership at the worst possible time,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said in the release. “Ironically, the mayor is the last person in America listening to the Trump administration when it comes to reopening schools; even the CDC has removed previous guidance from its website, and capitulated that schools are congregant settings where a virus like COVID-19 will spread.”
The union claimed that last week, CPS told them that teachers are now considered essential workers and thus, a return to school buildings could be mandated.
“Any science that CPS cites is an apples to oranges comparison, because the data about districts like ours remains limited, even as we’re still learning about this disease,” Sharkey said in the release. “This mayor says the buck stops with her, and that she would lead during the pandemic with empathy and science, but returning thousands of people to schools as COVID rages is far from empathetic, and the science is unclear.”
“We know CPS can’t prove its ventilation systems are safe, and yet the mayor insists on pushing us into this cruel and dangerous experiment,” Davis Gates said in the release. “That’s not equity; that’s a death sentence.”
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