Amid Outcry From Parents And Teachers, Chicago Public Schools Officials Insist They Can Safely Reopen

Chicago school officials want to resume in-person learning for preschoolers and some special needs students as early as next month.

WBEZ
Chicago Public Schools officials say proper precautions are in place for a safe reopening of school buildings. Many parents and teachers aren't convinced. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
WBEZ
Chicago Public Schools officials say proper precautions are in place for a safe reopening of school buildings. Many parents and teachers aren't convinced. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Amid Outcry From Parents And Teachers, Chicago Public Schools Officials Insist They Can Safely Reopen

Chicago school officials want to resume in-person learning for preschoolers and some special needs students as early as next month.

Chicago Public Schools teachers and parents spoke out Wednesday against the district’s plan to reopen school for preschoolers and some students with special needs, citing concerns about safety as COVID-19 cases rise in the city, especially in predominantly Latino and Black neighborhoods.

“Over the summer I was in support of a return to in-person as we had struggled so hard in the spring, but I knew that the district was not ready and safety protocols were not set up,” parent Anne Igoe, whose fourth grader has special needs, told Chicago Board of Education members Wednesday.

She said remote learning is working much better now, and the district is asking families to return before knowing full details of its plan.

At Wednesday’s meeting, CPS officials insisted they will guarantee student and staff safety and reiterated their deep concerns about the negative effects on students when they are not in school with teachers and peers. CPS board members also said there is a gulf between what people are saying about the school district’s plans and what the district is actually doing.

“I keep hearing there isn’t a plan, that teachers have no opportunity to chime or express concerns” said Board President Miguel del Valle. “These areas are being addressed. There is a plan.”

Del Valle said many, but not all, details have been worked out “and that’s why an exact date for returning some students to school hasn’t been set.”

New details revealed Wednesday include a plan for teachers to simultaneously teach in-person while also doing online instruction for students at home.

CPS leaders have said they want to return preschoolers and some students education students in cluster program as early as next month. A decision is expected before the start of the second quarter on Nov. 9. The school system has been surveying parents about their preferences, with a deadline to reply on Wednesday. CPS also said it will consider a return to in-person for additional grades as early as January.

Also Wednesday, the district reported a major drop in complaints of sexual misconduct and harassment since the switch to remote learning began in CPS in March.

The office of the CPS inspector general said it opened 50 cases to investigate allegations from July through September this year compared to 75 cases during the same period last year. Several complaints in September relate to online instruction, the IG’s office said, but most involve allegations of past misconduct. The inspector general’s office investigates adult-on-student complaints.

Despite the reduction in complaints, in September alone the IG office received 28 complaints.

The office that investigates student-on-student complaints also has seen a big drop off. After school buildings closed in the spring, complaints fell by more than 90% for the spring semester, according to data from the CPS Office of Student Protection. Before schools shut down in the spring, they were opening over 130 incident reports per week. Despite the drop off in complaints during remote learning, cases categorized as “sexual electronic communication” or sexting have more than doubled as a proportion of total cases.

Is school safe?

CPS officials on Wednesday said city data from preschools and private schools that are in-person this fall show that COVID-19 transmission rates are rare when the proper precautions are taken.

“Our facilities and capital teams, along with our hard working engineers and custodians, have been preparing since the spring to welcome students and staff back to school once it’s safe to do so,” said Arnie Rivera, chief operation officer with CPS.

Rivera also said CPS is increasing the number of custodians hired to 400, something he’s stressed before, and making sure schools are properly ventilated. He said class would only be held in properly ventilated rooms. They also said students and teachers in the buildings will follow safety protocols including wearing masks and maintaining social distance.

CPS officials also say they’ve reached out to families across the district to get their feedback, including calling more than 2,000 families and hosting town halls at 400 schools.

But parents whose kids have special needs worry CPS officials are painting a rosy picture and that their schools are unprepared for a return. They raised questions about trying to social distance students in buildings that only serve students with special needs and continue to ask whether ventilation systems are working properly.

The Chicago Teachers Union, which is adamantly opposed to a return without more safety precautions, has raised deep concerns about ventilation and wants its own experts allowed in the schools to inspect. The union says the school district refuses to bargain with them over reopening and they have asked a state labor board to prevent CPS from offering in-person instruction until the district bargains with them over the terms of reopening.

“Your own facilities records show that over 90% of CPS buildings lack ventilation that is adequate to reduce the spread of COVID-19.” said Christel Williams-Hayes, CUT’s recording secretary. “Let me be clear, your recklessness will harm overwhelmingly the Black and Latinx students and workers who live in the neighborhood.”

CPS officials say they understand the concerns raised by parents and teachers about returning, but they have to balance that with the long-term negative effects of remote learning.

“There is no practical way to eliminate COVID infections in school or out of schools,” said Sendhil Revuluri, board vice president. “The science in COVID-19 is evolving quickly. Science on kids learning and development has been out for decades and it shows not being at school could drastically harm vulnerable students.”

Revuluri added that the longer kids are out of pre-K, the more severe that impact on those kids’ lasting success is going to be. “It’s our moral obligation to bring them back as soon as we can,” he said.

In a presentation, CPS Chief Education Officer Latanya McDade said while online learning has increased dramatically since the spring, this year’s 4% drop in enrollment highlights some disparities that must be addressed. She called it an “educational crisis.” Preschool enrollment has dropped by 34%, with black students making up 44% of that decline.

CPS officials also emphasized their plan gives families a choice. Students who are not ready to go back can remain at home.

President Miguel del Valle also stressed the importance of communicating with parents and teachers frequently.

“People are desperate for details,” said Del Valle. “It is important for us to continue to dialogue and have communication on an ongoing basis with all the partners.”

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag