As COVID-19 Cases Rise, Chicago Public Schools To Start Remotely

When classes begin for Chicago Public Schools on Sept. 8 they will be all remote, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced on Aug. 5. Andrew Gill / WBEZ
When classes begin for Chicago Public Schools on Sept. 8 they will be all remote, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced on Aug. 5. Andrew Gill / WBEZ

As COVID-19 Cases Rise, Chicago Public Schools To Start Remotely

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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot confirmed Wednesday morning that the city’s public school district will hold remote classes only for the first quarter this fall, until Nov. 8.

Lightfoot and the school district are holding out hope that the second quarter can have hybrid learning, with most students in school at least twice a week.

The school district had released a preliminary plan last month that called for a mix of in-person and remote learning for most students but said a final decision on in-person learning would be made in late August. Wednesday’s reversal comes as pressure was building by the Chicago Teachers Union to go all remote and as COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Chicago. The union applauded the move to an all-remote plan.

Lightfoot, though, insisted the decision was based on science, not CTU’s advocacy.

“Our decision to open CPS remotely this fall is based on our evolving public health situation and feedback we’ve received, notably, from parents and faculty,” Lightfoot said.

CPS said a survey of parents, educators and students showed 41% of elementary school parents and 38% of high school parents did not intend to send their children to school. Only about 20% percent of African American and Latinx parents said they would send their children to school.

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Chicago is doing better than many regions in containing the virus, but the recent rise in COVID-19 cases and the positivity rate were concerning and prompted the move to all remote. The current seven-day rolling average of cases is 273, up from under 200 a month ago. The percentage of positive cases is 4.8%. This is below the benchmarks set by the city for a move to remote learning but it is moving in the wrong direction, she said.

Arwady also said she still believes CPS’ hybrid plan is a sound one for later use, and hasn’t seen evidence of significant spread in day care and camp settings.

Chicago Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that every teacher would provide “several hours” of live instruction daily and that remote learning would mirror a typical day at school. But she said the details of what to expect with remote learning will come out in a framework that will be introduced in the coming days.

The district also will return to its regular grading system, with all students receiving letter grades. And, in another change from the spring, student attendance will be tracked. Free grab-and-go meals will continue to be available to families.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said he expects remote learning to better than it was in the spring, when it was widely seen as uneven and a poor substitute for in-person classes. But he said that’s contingent on how planning goes over the next month. “CPS’ remote learning plan must vastly improve on student and family experiences from the spring,” Sharkey said in a statement. “Experts on the ground — our members — must be equal partners with the district in crafting those remote learning plans.”

When asked about CPS’ move to virtual learning, Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday said he doesn’t envision a one-size-fits-all approach statewide.

“There’s also a whole lot of guidance that is recommended, but you can’t tell every school exactly how they should implement it because each school, frankly, is different,” Pritzker said. “Some schools have larger campuses and fewer kids. Some schools have one school building, and some schools have multiple school buildings. … So, school districts across the state are making their own decisions. The city of Chicago and its school district made its decision.”

But Pritzker also cautioned that if case numbers and hospitalizations hit certain levels, he would still have to consider broader mandates for schools across the state.”If it continues to rise and if we don’t keep the positivity rate down, we obviously would have to consider more serious mitigation,” he said.

Lightfoot and Jackson now have the difficult task of not only figuring out what remote schooling will look like, but also developing child care options for parents who must work. Lightfoot said the city is working with community partners and will make sure that “all children are cared for,” and that parents should not have to make a choice between work and their children.

They have a little more than a month to make these decisions as school starts on Sept. 8.

Also, they need to determine how to make sure preschoolers and students with significant disabilities will be educated. In their original plan, they recognized these students could not do online learning and had wanted to have them in school five days a week. CPS said Wednesday that preschool students will get some live instruction, but will have spend more time with small group interaction and parental support.

In addition, they need to set new parameters as they decide whether they can have some in-person learning after Nov. 8.

The biggest task will be putting in place a plan so that all students will participate in remote learning. In the spring, it was a bumpy road with a quarter of students not logging in even once in some weeks and 16% doing no graded work in a week, according to the last set of engagement data from May 11 to 18.

Jackson insisted that internet and computer access will not be an issue as it was in the spring after schools shut down in March. The district said it has handed out 128,000 computing devices, plans to hand out another 36,000 and says it will buy more if necessary. Also, the city, with philanthropic support, is offering free broadband to 100,000 students.

She did not say how many families have signed up so far, but said principals will start reaching out to make sure that the information on how to sign up is widely available.

The official remote learning announcement was not a surprise. Tuesday afternoon the Chicago Teachers Union, which had been steadfast against any in-person instruction, let it be known they would move to a strike vote if the school district did not start with remote learning.

The announcement Wednesday also makes moot a form parents had been asked to fill out declaring whether they would send their children to school buildings at all. Parents had until this Friday to turn it in electronically, but sources say a significant number of students were going to be kept home regardless of the school district’s decision.

Chicago Public Schools will be joining Los Angeles, which will open on Aug. 18 with online only classes until further notice. However, New York City’s public schools are still planning on bringing some students into classrooms on a regular basis.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

Reporter Dave McKinney contributed to this story.