As Chicago Public Schools students began returning to classrooms this week, high schoolers across the city were still at home, with no immediate return day in sight. And for some, like Teresa Hayes’ youngest daughter, remote learning just isn’t cutting it.
“She’s stuck in her room at a desk for a really long time,” Hayes said. “She really is lacking motivation because she really responded well to adults that would nudge her.”
In-person learning is underway in CPS buildings now that the district and teachers union came to an agreement, but it’s only for younger students. Students in pre-K and some special education students returned this week, and elementary students can return in March.
Now, parents like Hayes are wondering when high school students will be able to return. Academic performance and mental health are major concerns. Schools CEO Janice Jackson says she wants high schoolers back as soon as possible, but it’s a more complicated process. Jackson said it’s the next point of discussion with the Chicago Teachers Union.
Hayes’ two daughters attend Whitney Young Magnet High School. She and her husband have had to put in a lot of work to help her youngest daughter stay on track. She thinks it would really help if her kids could be in school, even if it’s just for a couple of hours.
“Just a hybrid where she had some accountability, where she had to look someone in the face and say, ‘I didn’t do my homework,’ ” Hayes said.
More high schools around the region are starting to return to some form of in-person learning. But many still remain remote during the pandemic. As of Feb 8, 62% of districts in the Chicago area that serve high schoolers are still remote. Some 37% are a hybrid mix of in-person and remote, according to State Board of Education data that includes all local counties except Kane.
The slow pace of return is likely because high schools tend to have a larger student body, and students change classrooms throughout the day. In addition, teens are considered adults in terms of how much they contract and spread COVID-19.
“This is a particular problem for which there is no universally agreed solution,” said Ken Wallace, superintendent of Maine Township High School District 207. “That makes it so much more difficult.”
His district has more than 6,000 students spread across three schools in the northwestern suburbs. When the district allowed students to choose in-person learning back in November, students were on a block schedule and went home before lunch. The buildings were only at 10 to 15% capacity. Wallace said strict health protocols were also key.
Now, the district is introducing lunch and expanding the school day with the goal of getting more kids in the buildings. But he said what works for one high school won’t necessarily work for a large urban district like Chicago.
“Their complexity factor is exponentially more than a district like ours, or frankly, like most districts in America,” Wallace said. “You’ve got just geographic complexity, you’ve got size complexity, you’ve got political complexity.”
A main driver in the push to get kids back to the classroom is academic performance. While there was an increase in the number of A grades in math and reading for CPS high school students, there was also an increase in failing grades compared to last school year. The failing rates were higher among Black and Latino students.
But many parents and students don’t see reopening as the answer. Many plan on staying remote because they don’t think it’s safe yet. It’s the same for younger students. Only 32% of families plan to return now.
“Remote learning doesn’t have to be a hard thing,” said Judai Smith, a junior at Kenwood Academy. “It could be accessible. Students can pass. It’s about providing the support that is needed, and I don’t think CPS is really focusing on that.”
Judai said she’s typically a good student who is involved in a lot of activities, like being on the Mayor’s Youth Commission and CPS’ student advisory council. But like many students, she’s struggling. She can engage well in some of her discussion classes, and enjoys reading independently. But she finds it hard to focus on classes like AP calculus. She said her teachers have been supportive, but the academic standards are too rigid, especially during a pandemic.
“It doesn’t allow for much flexibility or support for different conditions,” Judai said. “It idolizes a specific type of student, and if you’re not that student, you’re bound to fail.”
Parents and students who are choosing to stay home are calling on CPS to improve remote learning. Jackson insists the district has a good remote program and has done all it can for e-learning. But she says the main focus now is on reopening schools. Jackson said the K-8 plan will be a framework for reopening high schools.
“Everytime we have a press conference and talk about K-8, I get countless emails from high school students and parents saying, ‘What about us, What about us?’ ” Jackson said.
Safety aside, Judai said there isn’t enough focus on students in the reopening plan.
“What it ignores is student mental health,” she said. “What it ignores is students’ engagement. What it ignores is the actual academics of it all.”
Judai said the district needs to listen to what students say they actually need to do better during the pandemic.