Angelica DeLeon, who attends a high school for students with special needs in Chicago, is learning how to shop for food, cook and write resumes this fall. These lessons are easier to teach in-person, but with the COVID-19 pandemic she has gotten used to the online interactive curriculum her teachers put together.
But that could soon change — and Angelica doesn’t like the idea. Chicago Public Schools wants to return some students with special needs to the classroom for in-person learning as early as next month.
“The online learning is incredible,’ said Angelica, who is a student at Vaughn Occupational High School on the Northwest Side. Angelica, who has autism, says she especially likes the virtual field trips and the online cooking classes.
Janet DeLeon, Angelica’s mother, doesn’t want her daughter to go back to school in-person either. Aside from fears of catching the virus, she and other Vaughn parents are surprised at how well remote learning is going for Vaughn students, who have cognitive and developmental disabilities.
“She has a routine set up,” said DeLeon, adding that she has two more kids in regular CPS schools where remote learning is completely different. “Angelica’s seems to be more interactive,” she said.
A group of Vaughn parents and the local school council have sent two letters to CPS officials urging them to continue with remote learning, especially when Chicago is experiencing a spike of COVID-19 infections in many areas.
CPS officials say the move to open schools will be done in consultation with the Chicago Department of Public Health. School officials are proposing students with special needs like at Vaughn go back two days a week and continue remotely the other days.
In March, the school had one of the first cases of COVID-19 reported in Chicago and was the first to shut down. Some parents had flashbacks when they heard their school could potentially reopen.
“When the news came out, my mind went back when this originally happened,” said Edilberto Aviles, a Vaughn parent. “I remember it was a Friday night and we were home, we received a phone call from CPS telling us that someone at the school had tested positive for COVID[-19] and there was no other information.”
Aviles says remote learning was new and difficult in the spring for his son, who like all Vaughn students is learning to become more independent. But now, he does a lot of school work on his own.
CPS officials have said families who are not ready to go back can remain at home. The school system has been surveying parents about their preferences, with a deadline to reply on Wednesday. They say a final decision on in-person classes will be made close to the start of the second quarter, which begins Nov. 9.
But parents say there are many unanswered questions. They want to know how teachers are going to manage remote and in-person teaching and what maintenance has been done to the building’s ventilation systems.
Parents say under any other circumstances in-person learning is ideal, but the new schedule is working well for most students.
Vaughn, for example, has also partnered with Wright College, Access Living and After School Matters to offer virtual classes and ensure students continue to meet their post-secondary goals. Angelica and her classmates are also making crafts to be sold online.
Some have learned to navigate Google calendar and manage their own schedules, others are less anxious now that they can’t hear loud noises coming from other rooms.
“One of the very first things I discovered in the Google Meet was the closed caption option,” said Cindy Fah-Ok, whose 21-year-old daughter has autism and seizures. “That function really opened my daughter’s eyes because she was able to see not only who was speaking but what they were saying.”
Her daughter can also use the chat function when she is not comfortable speaking.
Fah-Ok, who is also a chair of Vaughn’s local school council, is pushing hard to get CPS to reconsider in-person learning. She and others emphasize that a number of students at Vaughn are medically fragile and immunocompromised.
Fah-Ok and other parents understand some other families may need the in-school care and are struggling with their students at home. But they say instead of pushing for a reopening, CPS officials should strengthen remote learning and focus on helping those who are asking for support.