When Chicago Public Schools opens its doors for in-person classes at the start of the new year, the district expects only about 37% of students to walk in, and white students will be overrepresented.
According to CPS data, that percentage amounts to 77,000 out of about 210,000 students in district-run preschool and elementary schools, plus special education students in cluster programs, who also have the option to return.
School district officials told board members on Wednesday that, despite these numbers, they still believe it is a good idea to offer in-person instruction. They said students are suffering devastating learning loss and in-person learning is the best remedy.
CPS Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade fought back against the idea that reopening classrooms is inequitable because white students will take up more seats in schools. She said if the school district continues to only offer remote learning, while private and Catholic schools serving more affluent students convene in person, that disparity would be truly inequitable. All fall, McDade and other CPS leaders have highlighted how remote learning isn’t working well, in particular for the school district’s most vulnerable students.
Under the current plan, preschoolers and special education students enrolled in separate cluster programs start in-person learning on Jan. 11; the vast majority of K-8 students will start on Feb. 1.
Some 31% of Latino and 33.9% Black families said they would send their children into classes; these students make up more than 80% of students in the district.
Meanwhile, 67.5% of white and 33% of Asian parents said their children would be back. Only about 15% of the students in the district are white or Asian.
Valerie Coffman, who works for the social service agency Enlace Chicago, said the Latino families she works with are skeptical about sending children back because they have gotten mixed messages about safety. And even if they understand that the vast majority of children don’t get seriously ill from COVID-19, they are worried about them spreading it to grandparents who are at greater risk.
At the board meeting, Yeni Pinedo, a mother from Belmont Cragin on the Northwest Side, said she thinks that students will not be happy staying in classes all day and not going to the cafeteria or gym. “Even bars and restaurants are closed. Why are these being taken more seriously than schools?” she asked. She implored the board to consider that some parents live in communities of high risk.
But Aminah Baker, a mother who has a child at Burnside Scholastic Academy in Chatham on the South Side, said she thinks it is important to have options available. “I believe it is very important for parents who do want their children to end up back in school buildings,” she said, noting that different families have different circumstances. Some families might want to send their children back to school because they need more access to food, she said.
The results of the intent to release form responses shows that some schools will be expecting relatively full classes, while others will have just a few students.
According to the school district’s plans, elementary school students will only go into buildings two days a week — Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday — to reduce class capacity and overcrowding.
Teachers will simultaneously instruct students who are remote and those who are in person, except on Wednesday when all elementary school students will be remote. This aspect of the return plan in particular has raised concerns among teachers, prompting the Chicago Teachers Union to demand a different plan.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey argues that the students who opt to learn at home, the majority population, will get an inferior education.
There is a question about whether all the students whose parents said they will return will show up. The school district encouraged parents to choose in-person learning on the intent-to-return form, even if they were unsure. Officials said it was easier to plan for more students than fewer.
Also, parents were told that if they choose in-person learning they can switch to remote at any time. But if they choose remote learning they must stick with it until at least April.
School district officials have said they would only delay in-person learning if public health officials determine that community spread of COVID-19 is too great. The high benchmark set with the Chicago Department of Public Health is a doubling of coronavirus cases in less than 18 days. Over the course of the pandemic, the metrics for reopening schools have changed several times.
But the Chicago Teachers Union could also block reopening in January or February. The union has released a set of demands it says must be met before teachers and other staff will return. These include only resuming in-person learning when the COVID-19 positivity rate is at or below 3% and abandoning the idea that teachers could simultaneously instruct remotely and in person. The positivity rate in Chicago is now at 12.3%
On Thursday, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board will hold a hearing on the union’s request that the board go to court to prevent CPS from reopening without adopting an enforcement agreement with the union. CPS argues it does not need to negotiate reopening issues with the union.
If the union wins an injunction, a deal could take weeks. And even if the union loses, it could still organize labor actions, including a strike.