• Coronavirus in Illinois

Reopening Schools In Chicago And The Region: What To Know

Schools across Illinois are gearing up to start a new school year as the coronavirus pandemic continues. The return-to-school plans run the gamut, with the majority of schools now going for full remote learning or a mix of remote and in-person instruction.

We’re monitoring this developing story for news that applies to families with school-age children and college students — in the greater Chicago area, primarily — so check back for updates.

Parents and students, here are answers to some pressing questions — researched and reported by WBEZ’s education team.

Do you have a question about schools reopening that WBEZ’s education team could answer? Let us know here.

Illinois Requires 5 Hours Of School Each Day During Remote Learning. How Much Will Be Led By A Teacher?

There won’t be a teacher at the head of the classroom like we’re used to, but the state wants schools to get as close to that as possible.

To replace a school day that’s typically seven hours long, the Illinois State Board of Education said in its Fall 2020 Learning Recommendations that schools must ensure at least five hours a day of instruction and student work time. Educators from across the state collaborated in writing this report.

The five hours does not have to be led by a teacher. However, the state “strongly recommends” that at least 2.5 hours of the time include real-time interaction and instruction between students and teachers.

The goal is clear: track as closely to traditional school as possible and make sure students are advancing. In addition, the state’s recommendations are tightly focused on helping students who are expected to return to school this fall with significant learning gaps after a spring of rocky remote learning.

To make up for that learning gap or — at a minimum — to minimize falling further behind, the state is calling on schools to assess students so teachers know where they are academically. It’s also encouraging teachers to set individual student growth goals and dig deep into academic material while resisting the urge to go “back to the basics.”

Chicago Public Schools is also stressing that last point. When discussing the district’s proposed back-to-school plan in late July, CEO Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade discouraged a focus on remediation. We are “trying to combat low expectations,” she said.

It’s not clear yet exactly how much teacher instruction will take place in Chicago when it goes back to school on Sept. 8 with remote only classes.

But in announcing remote-only plans on Aug. 5, CPS said students should expect “several hours” of live instruction daily as well as independent learning and small group activities. Special classes, such as art and physical education, will also take place. District officials said students and teachers will be engaged for a full day that mirrors a traditional school day. More details are expected on Friday.

After the first quarter ends on Nov. 8, CPS hopes to move to a hybrid model for most students that mixes two days of in-person instruction and three days of remote learning.

This preliminary model includes little real-time instruction during remote learning.

On the three remote days, CPS says there would be live instruction for only three hours on Wednesdays.

On the other remote days, students are slated to work independently. CPS has so far only offered general guidance on what that might include, such as pre-recorded lessons and projects.

For CPS students who aren’t comfortable returning to school buildings at all, the tentative all-remote plan calls for almost all independent learning and a mere three hours of teacher-led instruction each week. CPS says the final plan will be based on how many students opt to learn from home exclusively.

While some school districts have proposed plans similar to CPS, other learn-at-home plans call for more teacher interaction, including using remote teachers or live-streams of in-person learning.

When asked about falling short of the state’s recommendation for real-time instruction in its preliminary plan, a CPS spokeswoman last week said, “This is an area we have received and continue to collect feedback from families and we are evaluating opportunities to determine if we can provide additional real-time instruction/interaction for students, especially for those who opt-out of in-person learning.”

CPS Has Issued A Back-To-School Plan. What Are The Odds That It’s Final?

We’d say the chances are 50-50 — and dropping by the day.

Right now, CPS is proposing a hybrid mix of remote and in-person learning for most students. (WBEZ made this easy-to-use guide that breaks down CPS’ preliminary plan by age group.)

But CPS has said repeatedly it would only go forward with in-person instruction if health conditions allow. And on Wednesday July 29, it got specific. CPS officials said it would offer some in-person instruction if the daily COVID-19 case count in Chicago stays below 400. The daily average is 246, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health. That’s as of July 23, which is the city’s most up-to-date information.

And CPS is also facing growing opposition to any in-person instruction. The Chicago Teachers Union is strongly opposed, calling for school to start remote only. The Illinois Federation of Teachers is also calling for e-learning only to begin the year. And, on July 28, the American Federation of Teachers said it would support strikes as a last resort to ensure teachers remain safe.

Many parents are also skeptical. At a July 27 Chicago Public Schools virtual community meeting, 65% of the people who responded to a poll said they were either “not comfortable at all” or “somewhat not comfortable” with the school district’s reopening plan. Some 34% said they were “neutral,” “somewhat comfortable” or “very comfortable.”

Meanwhile, some suburban schools are beginning to backtrack on hybrid plans similar to what CPS is proposing. Recently, west suburban District 89 and Evanston Township High School switched to all remote, as did Oak Park’s elementary district. Plainfield School District 202, with nearly 27,000 students in 31 schools voted on July 27 to start the year remote only. For more details on suburban plans, check out Chalkbeat Chicago’s school reopening news.

CPS is pushing its hybrid plan, trying to make the case that it’s safe and can work. But its leaders have also said all along that they would switch to all remote learning if need be.

“The plan we’re proposing is designed to adapt to changing public health conditions and to evolving science,” Dr. Kenneth Fox, CPS’ chief health officer, said during a July 27 community meeting. “If it is safe to do so, we will begin our hybrid learning model on Sept. 8. As the public health situation in Chicago evolves, so will our plan. Should COVID cases arise too quickly and if the health and safety is thus threatened, we will pivot quickly to a full at-home learning model.”

Chicago school district leaders say the final decision about whether to actually have in-person instruction will be made at the end of August.

Follow WBEZ’s education team on Twitter @WBEZeducation.