In Some Communities, Less Than 60% Of Households Have Internet. CPS' New Plan Can't Change That.

Chicago Public Schools is giving 100,000 devices to its highest-need students, but that isn't enough to deal with the city's digital divide.

A student does school work with his computer at his home in Chicago
Sarah Marton talks with her son Cooper Marton, an 8th grader at Disney II Magnet School, while her son does school work on his computer at his home in Chicago. Chicago Public Schools says even with 100,000 devices being distributed to the highest-need students, the city’s digital divide is so great it will be impossible to erase in mere weeks or months. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press
A student does school work with his computer at his home in Chicago
Sarah Marton talks with her son Cooper Marton, an 8th grader at Disney II Magnet School, while her son does school work on his computer at his home in Chicago. Chicago Public Schools says even with 100,000 devices being distributed to the highest-need students, the city’s digital divide is so great it will be impossible to erase in mere weeks or months. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

In Some Communities, Less Than 60% Of Households Have Internet. CPS' New Plan Can't Change That.

Chicago Public Schools is giving 100,000 devices to its highest-need students, but that isn't enough to deal with the city's digital divide.

Updated 2:05 p.m.

Chicago Public Schools leaders aren’t moving students to full e-learning days, as other school districts have, given the limited access among many students. But remote learning will officially begin on April 13, after spring break and a period of planning. The district plans to hand out devices to its highest-need students, Chicago Public Schools officials and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Monday.

As part of its remote learning plan, school district officials are acknowledging the reality that school communities have different tech capabilities and internet access, and are directing each school to develop its own remote learning plan, which some already have. CPS says the plans will include daily digital as well as paper assignments.

“This plan cannot replace high-quality instruction in the classroom that happens with teachers every day, but we are excited to announce that we have a plan for remote learning,” Schools CEO Janice Jackson said during a news conference on Monday. “Remote learning will be as diverse as the school communities here in Chicago.”

Jackson also said it’s too early to talk about extending the school year into the summer.

Within the next two weeks, the school district says it will get more than 100,000 devices to its highest-need students by moving 65,000 from schools to homes and giving out 37,000 that were already purchased. While the district does not have the resources to provide internet access for every student, Comcast and AT&T are currently offering free internet access for high-need families.

“This will not erase the technology gap that has persisted for years, but we believe that it is an important step forward,” Jackson said.

City Colleges of Chicago is also distributing loaner laptops for its community college students and said it has shifted nearly all its classes for credit-earning students online.

Even with the new devices, Chicago Public Schools officials recognize that the digital divide in the city is so great it would be impossible to erase in weeks or even months.

More than 100,000 households in the city lack a computer or tablet, and almost 200,000 don’t have internet access, according to 2018 U.S. Census data, the most recent available. Internet access varies widely from one community to the next.

Chicago school officials already have canceled in-person school until April 21. But the school closure is expected to last longer. The federal government on Sunday extended its guidelines for physical distancing through the end of April.

On Monday, Lightfoot dismissed the idea that a decision has already been made to cancel schools for the rest of the year.

“We have no reasons to believe that’s the case,” Lightfoot said. “What happens with the schools … is determined at the state level and we certainly haven’t received any guidance from the State Board of Education one way or the other.”

CPS is not the only school district struggling to implement remote online learning. Only half of Illinois’ school districts offer video lessons led by staff and 80% of districts are using a mix of digital platforms and paper resources, according to a survey of about 75% of districts by the Illinois State Board of Education.

CPS’ move comes as the Illinois State Board of Education says all Illinois school districts must move to so-called “remote learning days” starting Tuesday. These days will count as instructional days and school districts are supposed to have firm plans for schooling from home beginning then. Schools can also use up to five days for planning.

The state says schools can implement e-learning or remote learning plans that provide “students with instruction and access to educators through whatever means possible.” This is a nod to the reality that many districts and families do not have adequate access to technology.

In Chicago, the new CPS guidance for schools says assignments can be graded but they will continue only to be used to improve student grades and cannot lower them. They also now say incomplete assignments will need to be made up following the remote learning period.

The school district is dealing with a digital divide both in the homes of its students and between schools. Some schools have enough computers or tablets to distribute one to every family. For example, Alcott School surveyed families on their tech needs and appears to have enough inventory to make sure families get devices who need them.

Teachers at those schools might spend their four hours leading class discussions or presenting lessons.

But principals may also develop paper learning packets if they have many students without access and not enough computers to hand out. In those cases, teachers may be available by phone or email to answer questions. They also might spend time reaching out to families to try to get them engaged.

School district officials were given the leeway on March 25 to spend up to $75 million on emergency expenses to deal with the new coronavirus. At their monthly meeting, Jackson told board members that some of that money would be used to buy computers and licenses for e-learning programs.

The school district is sending devices to the highest-need students. But Jackson said the district won’t be able to fulfill all the need, partly because there’s a shortage of devices as school districts across the country try to ramp up e-learning.

The City Colleges of Chicago also said it’s providing students in need with loaner laptops to continue their studies. They’ve sent out nearly 850 laptops already and are shipping an additional 627 on Monday. They also plan to send home Wi-Fi hot spots home on a first-come, first-serve basis this week.

The seven college system has shifted nearly all of its classes and student services online. It is also planning to shift its emergency fund online and said it will start to offer direct payments to students for emergency needs, such as rent or groceries this week.

They will also shift the school’s free adult education classes online starting April 13 and will offer loaner laptops to adult education students pursuing their GED or taking English classes.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporterKate McGee contributed reporting to this story. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.