Chicago Public Schools wants to open schools up for in-person instruction for preschool students and those with moderate and severe disabilities who spend their days in separate classes, district officials announced Friday morning.
All other students would continue remote learning.
But the final decision on in-person classes won’t be made until closer to the second quarter, which is Nov. 9. CPS is asking parents to respond to a survey, to be sent out Oct. 21. And, if students do return, it will be phased-in after the second quarter begins with the exact timeline not set. CPS also said it will consider a return to in-person for additional grades as early as January.
But the Chicago Teachers Union is staunchly opposed to any plan to bring students back for in-person learning. Officials said they think the school district would have to spend $1 billion to make school’s safe for return.
The union Friday morning warned it will take all necessary steps to prevent the reopening of school buildings for students.
This comes as the school district announced its largest drop in enrollment in two decades amid the pandemic, matching a national trend. Enrollment is down by about 4% or about 14,500 fewer students this year compared to last year, according to school district figures released Friday.
School district officials say they want preschool students and some special education students in school because of a “crisis in attendance and enrollment.” Preschool enrollment accounts for 41% of the district’s enrollment loss, according to CPS data. CPS says enrollment of black preschoolers is down 44%.
And attendance among students with moderate and severe disabilities in cluster programs is only about 81%, down from nearly 91% at this point last year. That is significantly lower than the district average which is running at about 91%, according to the district.
Chicago Public Schools said it will only bring students back into the buildings in consultation with the Chicago Department of Public Health. It also said it has bought sanitizer and other protective equipment and spent $65 million on mechanical system enhancements and replacements to promote proper ventilation. It also cited the success of other schools in Chicago and elsewhere that have resumed in-person learning.
“CDPH closely tracks cases in all youth settings including daycares, camps, athletic teams, and schools, and the data shows us that when the proper precautions are taken, transmission in those settings is rare,” said CDPH Commissioner Allison Arwady said in a statement.
Yet CTU leaders and members stressed that many Chicago neighborhoods are seeing an uptick in COVID-19 positivity rates and are much higher than the rates the school district previously established for reopening. This summer, the school district had said if the city was above 5% positivity, it would not bring students in for in-person learning.
Currently, the city is seeing an upward trend of positivity and is now at 4.8%. Also, several zip codes are double or triple that rate.
Linda Perales, a special education teacher at Corkery Elementary School in Little Village, said the positivity rate in the neighborhood is rising. The zip code that includes Little Village has a positivity rate of 15.1%, according to city data. She said the severely disabled students she works with need “hand over hand” support. In a class of 11 students, there are five adults, she said.
“Students have such high needs that it is impossible to social distance, putting us at risk,” Perales said. “So [Mayor] Lori [Lightfoot], stop playing with the lives of my students.Stop playing with my life with the lives of our communities. We need remote learning until it is safe.”
CTU Deputy General Counsel Thad Goodchild called on the school district to work with the union to develop a plan for a safe return. The union and the school district have been at odds during the pandemic, with union leaders saying the district leaders are not negotiating with them.
In one major dispute, an independent arbitrator recently ruled that school clerks shouldn’t be required to return to schools if they could do their work remotely.
Goodchild points out that in Los Angeles, the school district and its teachers union have worked out a deal.
He also warned that if Chicago Public Schools moves forward with this plan, it could face actions from the union.
“CPS appears hell bent on ignoring educators, denying science and the law and putting people in danger,” he said. “If the mayor and our handpicked board of education persist in doing so, the city will have no choice but to seek all available recourse to solve them. This is quite literally a matter of life and death.”