As remote learning gets underway in earnest in Chicago, public school officials on Wednesday said about half of the 115,000 Chicago Public Schools students who need a computer have received one. They also stressed the need for students to be graded and urged the district to focus most intently on disconnected students.
Schools CEO Janice Jackson said the school district has already spent millions responding to the COVID-19 crisis, much of it on computers, but that it must focus its efforts.
“If we try to take a blanket approach, like we have been doing, it is completely unsustainable,” Jackson said at a Chicago Board of Education meeting on Wednesday.
“I would much rather have a realistic view of the students who can not participate in remote learning because of connectivity issues, because of device issues, because of family conditions because they don’t have the support to do this work… If we don’t set up a real system that allows us that visibility, we are just blowing in the wind.”
Chicago public school students are in the second official week of remote learning. All Illinois schools closed five weeks ago for in-person classes due to the coronavirus, and will remain closed for the rest of the academic year. Remote learning for Chicago students is supposed to take place online or through paper packets.
Jackson and Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade said they are in the process of getting computers to all 115,000 students who they believe need them. So far, schools have distributed about 61,000 that were already in stock.
Officials said another 43,000 new computers will be handed out, starting Wednesday, and another 10,000 have been ordered and should be coming over the next few weeks.
The forced move to remote learning has exposed how big the digital divide is between schools and students. The school district reported about 146 schools out of its 500-plus schools had a device for every student. Some of these schools ramped up their computer access as part of a technology modernization plan the school district put in place two years ago.
Under that plan, the school district was to spend $125 million over four years. Officials say it has spent about $57 million prior to the crisis.
Given the digital divide and the stress that many families are under, some have argued it is wrong to give students grades or to hold teachers accountable for student engagement. The state has recommended that student assignments during the closure should only count if they improve a student’s grade.
Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey told board members he would like to see a grading system of pass/fail for the fourth quarter or credit/no credit.
Several board members also asked about grades, noting concerns about penalizing students who cannot do school work because of issues that are out of their control. .
But Jackson responded by saying that the school district cannot give up on the students who are not doing work. She said the school system and its educators need to have “checks and balances.”
“We are going to be extremely thoughtful and we are going to put something together that is complex and meets the needs of everybody,” she said. “But I also want to make sure that we are not throwing out all the hard work that we have done to support our students, and to push students — who people didn’t believe could perform — to do great things. We are not throwing it out because of COVID.”
Regarding student engagement with remote learning, the school district is in the process of creating a district-wide system to keep tabs on how many students are doing school work. To see who is connecting, they are looking at using online tools students are already supposed to log on to, said Phillip DiBartolo, CPS’ chief information officer.
“We understand a device is just a device,” DiBartolo said. “A device is not truly useful unless it is leveraged by a talented teacher to make sure that the way it is being used is aligned with the educational mission.”
McDade said the school district has seen an uptick in involvement since the school district officially kicked off remote learning last Monday. The first two weeks of the school shutdown, which began March 17, were considered enrichment, followed by spring break.
She said the school district is also looking at the quality of each school’s remote learning plans so schools can learn from strong ones and educators can make weak ones more robust.
Another outstanding challenge that came up at the board meeting is that while some students are getting computers, many still lack internet access.
The school district announced last week it bought hotspot Internet devices for all its homeless students, as well as providing them with computers. But each hotspot device cost almost $200. Most families have been directed to get internet access through one of several companies that are offering a couple of free months to low-income families.
DiBartolo said he does not know exactly how many students need internet access, but he would suspect at least the 115,000 who did not have computers don’t have access.
A lot of families in Chicago have signed up for the free internet program since the school district shutdown began last month, said Comcast spokesman John Segal. But he declined to provide numbers.
Board President Miguel del Valle said he has heard that undocumented families are reluctant to sign up. “We need the city and state to help us make internet access available during this crisis,” he said. “This is unprecedented and we need to do things differently.”
Board members noted there are few free wi-fi hot spots in Chicago and that many families have poor internet access that make doing work difficult.
DiBartolo said there is ongoing dialogue with city government and companies to break down obstacles.
“This is a problem that has existed before this crisis,” he said. “I would be derelict if I told you every student who needed access is going to get it. There is no finish line here and we are going to push as hard as we can push.”
This story was updated to include the fact that 6,400 computers have been distributed to students who attend Chicago charter schools. In all, about 61,000 computers have been distributed to traditional and charter Chicago public school students so far.