Across the Chicago area, there’s been a lot of grumbling and teeth gnashing from parents and students about returning to school remotely this year. But ten-year-old Giovanni Villasenor isn’t among them.
He says he can’t wait for e-learning to begin at his Chicago public school on Tuesday, the first day for more than 300,000 students citywide. “I feel like it is going to be really fun because online they make stuff funner,” said Giovanni, who goes to Tarkington School on the Southwest Side. “It will be a lot cooler.”
Giovanni is lucky. His 22-year-old sister is home to monitor him and his little sister while his parents work. And his sister is a gamer so she insists the household have a good internet connection.
But in the spring, Giovanni’s elementary school was one of 10 where one-fifth of the students were considered “non-digital learners,” meaning they showed no signs they had a computer and could access the internet. At Tarkington, that is more than 200 students out of 1,000.
And that’s not the only marker of how many students were either disconnected or disengaged in the spring. Students at most Chicago public schools did not log in regularly. At 384 schools of 513 traditional public schools, less than half the students took part in online learning three times a week over an eight week period, according to CPS data.
As school gets underway on Tuesday, making sure all students are connected and engaged will be the school district’s biggest test. The school district also faces a host of other challenges as it embarks on remote learning for at least the first quarter, including fears of screen-time overload, a frustrated and restless union, the unique struggles of serving special needs students and trying to help working parents.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson say they are confident the connection problems that were so pervasive in the spring will be solved by Tuesday. At a press conference Friday, Jackson urged families to call their school or a CPS hotline and “we will make sure you’re ready to learn by Tuesday.”
Chicago Public Schools says it handed out more than 128,000 computers or iPads in the spring, another 17,000 this summer, and officials have said anyone who needs one should be able get it. Lightfoot even made the point in a press conference that each sibling in a family should be able to get a computer from their school.
Also, Lightfoot and the school district put together a group of philanthropists to provide students and families with free internet for four years through a program called Chicago Connected. According to a report from Kids First Chicago, an advocacy group, and the Metropolitan Planning Council, some 100,000 lacked connection.
Since that program launched in June, the school system says more than 24,000 families have signed up. Some principals tell WBEZ it has been seamless for some families, and equipment was quickly delivered to their homes.
But others worry some families will remain disconnected come Tuesday. Jackson denied this is the case, but some schools are still waiting for computers to arrive so they can provide one to every student who requested a device.
Also, some of the community organizations tasked with helping families get internet connections just got cleared to start their work or say the number of families they’ve been asked to contact is overwhelming.
Some families are also leery of signing up though the program. It makes clear a social security number isn’t required, but some say undocumented families are nervous about providing anything.
In addition, some families who think they are eligible are finding they are not. Daniel Anello, executive director of Kids First Chicago, which is helping administer Chicago Connected, said CPS is determining eligibility based on family information provided in the spring. There is no process yet to include families whose economic situation changed over the summer.
However, Chicago Connected is actively examining options to expand the reach of its coverage after the population of eligible students has been addressed, according to CPS.
Chicago is one of the few cities aiming to get all children access to the internet and is ahead of the curve in that sense, Anello said. Still, he admits there’s work to do, not only getting everyone connected, but also getting moms, dads and others familiar with the Google education programs their children will be using so they can help.
Too much screen time?
Despite all the technology problems of last spring, Chicago Public School leaders have set an ambitious course for the coming school year. They are insisting students participate in a full school day online.
They have set strict guidelines for the amount of time they want students to participate in Google classroom sessions with a teacher and the amount of time students should be working on their own.
Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade defended the position in front of the Board of Education at the August meeting.
“We must be responsive to this moment in history without allowing ourselves to be undone by the roadblocks ahead and we must remain fully committed to academic excellence and robust social emotional learning for every child no matter where that learning is happening,” McDade said.
Some parents and teachers are worried that children won’t be able to handle staring at a computer screen for so long. A parent posted a copy of her son’s fourth grade schedule on Facebook with this comment: “I seriously want to cry. … There is NO WAY he can be online all day like this. It isn’t possible.” A teacher responded: “Believe me, teachers are crying too.”
Board member Luisiana Meléndez questioned school district leaders about requiring primary age school students to be in front of the computer for three hours a day. “There is something that I worry about — the K through 2nd amount of time,” said Melendez, who is an expert in early childhood education.
She applauded the fact that the screen time does not have to be continuous. But she noted that young children need adults to help manage online learning. “It demands a lot from the families that are already stressed,” she said.
CPS officials asked her what she thinks is appropriate. But Melendez said she was not sure.
Other teachers say they will try to make it work by splitting up the time that students have to be logged in throughout the day.
But demanding students spend such long days in front of a computer could be risky. In Los Angeles Unified School District, which started on Aug. 18, kindergarten enrollment is down by 6,000 students and virtual classrooms are at 50% to 75% capacity, according to the LA Times.
Though the cause of the declines are not entirely clear, principals and others tell the Times that parents are overwhelmed with trying to fit classes into their work schedules and that students are already resisting getting online regularly.
Chicago Teachers Union pushback
Teachers and other staff are worried the school district is setting unrealistic expectations for participation in remote learning and fear they will be blamed when students don’t show up. Attendance will be taken daily and teachers worry they will be held responsible for missing students even if it is for reasons outside their control.
In addition, CPS has said that they will restart doing teacher evaluations in the fall, even as teachers are still trying to learn how to effectively deliver classes virtually.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey criticized the district’s remote learning guidelines saying that leaders have yet to come to terms with the fact that the city and nation is in the midst of a pandemic and to adjust accordingly.
This is one of the many issues the union is trying to push the school district on. But, according to the union, district leaders have been slow to respond to their demands.
The other big issue the union is making lots of noise about is around whether it’s safe to require certain staff to work in-person. Already, they are complaining that clerks, clinicians, tech coordinators and other workers have been forced to go into schools where basic safety standards aren’t being enforced and protective gear is lacking.
But the school district says safety protocols are in place and that school buildings are mostly empty so it is easy for staff to stay socially distant.
Serving special needs students
When schools shut down in the spring, educational and supportive services for many special needs students came to a screeching halt.
Many services, like counseling or occupational therapy, are often done in small groups and figuring out how to do that amid privacy concerns online has been a challenge. And it was hard for special education teachers to figure out how to accommodate lessons online for their students.
According to CPS data, only about 40% of students in special education regularly got online in the spring.
In August, the school district put out a 68-page remote learning guidance document just to answer the questions on delivering special education. It makes clear that students are supposed to continue getting all the services called for in their individual education plans.
This fall, the school district says that support services can be done via teleconferencing, but if it is in a small group parents must sign waivers because confidentiality can’t be guaranteed. If clinicians want to work one-on-one with students, parents must be in the room, according to the guidelines.
Students in special education are supposed to be online the same amount of time as their general education peers, unless there’s an accommodation called for in the plan. But if their disability prevents them from doing online learning, then their teachers are supposed to develop paper packages to be picked up.
What’s a working parent to do?
When the school district announced it was going to be all remote in at least the fall quarter, a top concern was what will happen to children whose parents both work. The school system says it will provide free childcare for these children.
Over the past two weeks, it asked parents who needed someone to watch their children to fill out a survey. It said it would prioritize the students from low-income families and would try to accommodate all who need it.
The district has yet to release information on how many families raised their hands, nor has it said whether it has enough spaces to meet the need.
But some community organizations say the need might not be as acute as one might assume.
Parents have had their children at home since mid-March so childcare may be in place. Furthermore, those in Black and Latino communities hit hard by the pandemic may be unwilling to have their children in a setting with others for the same safety reasons many said they didn’t want to send their children into school buildings this fall.