The pressure to resume in-person learning is intensifying for Chicago Public Schools officials who worry students are falling behind academically during remote learning.
As they prepare to bring students back starting mid-January, they’ve been paying close attention to other in-person school models during the pandemic, including the Catholic schools.
But there is one hybrid model at a public charter school on the West Side that offers a version of the plan CPS officials have in mind.
North Lawndale College Prep, which has two campuses, has been doing in-person school two days a week. Some 370 students, or nearly half their student body, signed up for the hybrid model.
Like CPS, North Lawndale College Prep officials faced a similar sense of urgency about bringing struggling students back. Many students at North Lawndale also have to worry about the effects of poverty, street violence and lack of support during remote school.
And they say their in-person model is helping. Some 13 weeks in, North Lawndale school officials say students going to school in-person have better attendance, higher grades and are less likely to miss assignments than students doing remote school only.
“I actually like going to school because it’s real easy to get help, it’s not like many distractions,” said Amari Crockett, a junior at North Lawndale College Prep’s Collins campus. He said in-person helps him “make sure I do all my work, keep my grades up,”
CPS officials have seen an increase in failing grades during remote learning and decreased attendance. They hope to reverse those trends by bringing students back.
But pulling off in-person school at two charter high campuses is easier than at a huge school district with hundreds of schools. North Lawndale can also be nimble and make quick changes. That’s harder to do at a much larger scale.
In CPS, teachers are also pushing back. The Chicago Teachers Union doesn’t think the district’s reopening plan is safe. Earlier this week it asked a state labor board to go to court to stop the school district from reopening until it reaches an agreement with the union over health and safety issues. North Lawndale College Prep doesn’t have a teachers union.
CPS officials say they won’t slow down their plans unless public health officials say health conditions make reopening unsafe. They plan to bring back preschoolers and students with special needs back on Jan. 11. Elementary schools are due back Feb. 1. They hope to bring some high schoolers later. Families can opt to stay home if they prefer.
“We have a moral responsibility to do everything possible to bring our students back into the classroom,” LaTanya McDade, Chief Education Officer for CPS, said at a board meeting last month. “Our students are hurting right now, especially our most vulnerable students.”
“Exhausting every possible measure”
North Lawndale College Prep officials say with the right resources schools can safely make in-person school work.
Though the North Lawndale community has been among the hardest hit by the virus in the city, school officials say they haven’t had any reported COVID-19 cases.
That gets to the heart of a debate across the country — are cases being transmitted at high rates in schools? Chicago public health officials say schools aren’t hubs of COVID-19 transmission, citing the experiences of schools already open in Chicago. Early evidence elsewhere suggests that’s the case, but some experts say there isn’t enough data to say that conclusively.
North Lawndale officials say they are keeping cases out with lots of safety precautions
“We are using and exhausting every possible measure to ensure that when people walk in here they feel safe,” said Arriel Azadi J. Williams, principal of North Lawndale’s Christiana campus.
Those measures include replacing tables normally used by students with individual student desks, body-sized shields by the school’s main door and cafeteria, personal protective equipment for staff, parents and students, and routine COVID-19 screening for everyone in the mornings.
Students also have two different entryways and a separate entrance for adults. Students are split into two groups of about 80 to 90 students at school two different days each week.
To help pay for these new safety measures, North Lawndale used funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. Records show North Lawndale received between $1 million and $2 million, but the school declined to share the exact amount. Those funds were designed to help small businesses deal with the financial fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, but more than a dozen charter schools, including North Lawndale, received funds through this program.
In addition, all public schools, including North Lawndale College Prep, benefited from the $206 million that went to Chicago Public Schools through the federal CARES coronavirus relief package. That money was spent centrally to distribute resources for all schools, such as cleaning supplies and PPE.
Williams said the biggest challenge is managing and supporting students in the classroom and at home. “The other aspect of this is that we have a whole other part of our population that’s virtual, that we never see, so we are managing two completely different schools.”
School officials say they were able to secure buy-in from parents, many of whom are happy to have the in-person school option for their kids. Some say remote working wasn’t working. That robust parent support is something CPS officials have struggled to obtain.
“Being at home, kids have a lot of idle time and they tend to do what they want. We are at work [and] we can’t watch them when they are not at school,” said Frankie Hutchinson, Amari’s dad. “You do these phone calls throughout the day. ‘Are you home learning? Are you doing this? Are you doing that?’”
Hutchinson is a bus driver, but he makes Amari take an Uber to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
At her school, Williams says, teachers are supportive. “We actually give our teachers an option to decide to teach at an NLCP hybridly or not, and I think that we are very lucky to have a staff that is willing to make the sacrifice.”
She said so far there is one resignation at her school as a result. School officials didn’t provide information about the total number of teachers and staff at each campus or if there were additional staff terminations or layoffs since their hybrid plan began.
Despite all the unknowns and the challenges with in-person school, Williams said she didn’t see any other way to make it work.
“When you think about where North Lawndale is positioned — it’s in the middle of a very violent, impoverished community,” Williams said. “And many of the students that we serve are part of a community that’s typically challenged.”
Williams knows the community well. She is a North Lawndale College Prep graduate and has worked with students and parents for years.
In the spring, when the social unrest against police brutality and racial inequality started, Williams worried about her students.
“When there were all of the issues with George Floyd and the police brutality and everything, some of the challenges were our scholars not feeling safe when they went outside,” she said.
She checked on them and sent encouraging messages, but with the pandemic, the violence, the social unrest, she knew many students needed the in-person school support.
Despite the differences, Williams has advice for CPS officials who are eager to bring students back and boost engagement: use every single resource possible to ensure the safety of students and teachers and be ready to reach out to students who are not showing up to class.
“We know that making a single parent phone call just won’t do it,” Williams said. “We need to also show up and physically show up to that student’s home and show them how much we care.”
This story was updated to make clear that federal coronavirus funding didn’t go directly into North Lawndale College Prep’s school budget.