Chicago Public Schools officials and Mayor Lori Lightfoot have made it clear they want students back in school buildings this fall. Their fall reopening plan calls for a mix of in-school and in-person for nearly all students in the nation’s third largest school district.
“We are preparing to take extraordinary steps because the benefits of learning in-person are so profound,” CPS CEO Janice Jackson said as she rolled out the district’s plan last week. “There is no replacing a loving teacher and learning with your friends.”
But in the days that have followed the announcement, the response has been mixed. While the COVID-19 crisis continues, parents and students across Chicago are divided about a return to the classroom.
“It’s not right,” said Maricela Rufino, whose four children go to Seward Academy in Back of the Yards. “Here they are safe with me, but I’ll send them to school and when they come back, who knows who they’ve interacted with. They could be coming back sick.”
A poll released Tuesday by Stand for Children Illinois found that a slight majority — 54% — of Chicago Public Schools parents support in-person learning part-time or entirely. Another 40% support remote learning only. CPS says the majority of parents it surveyed prefer a mix of in-person and remote learning, but the school district didn’t share the survey results.
The district’s preliminary back-to-school plan calls for a mix of in-person instruction and remote learning for students in kindergarten through 10th grade. Preschool students would return to class full time while high school juniors and seniors would be entirely remote under CPS’ proposal. After soliciting public feedback, the district intends to release a final plan in early August and make a final decision on in-person instruction in late August based on conditions at the time. School begins Sept. 8.
Juniors and seniors worry about missing out
This new framework is generating strong reactions among juniors and seniors, with many voicing their disappointment on social media. Some students like Nataly España, a rising senior at Lane Tech College Prep, want to meet with their teachers at least once a week as they get ready for college.
Nataly and other seniors worry about another year of missing out.
“There are a lot of things that I missed my junior year and I am going to continue losing this year,” said Nataly, who wants to study political science and go to law school.
Nataly wants guidance from her teachers as she’s coming up with a college plan.
“I don’t even know the process of applying to college,” Nataly said. “I saw a video on TikTok from I believe a college freshman somewhere,” she said.
Support for remote learning only
The Chicago Teachers Union has strongly advocated for remote learning only. CPS officials have said they would switch the school district to remote only if the pandemic worsens. Others also have deep reservations about returning to school buildings.
“I am worried about in-person learning and safety,” said Julia Rademacher-Wedd. In her Hyde Park home, there are nine other people of all different ages. “There are quite a few people in the household who are either over 50 and have asthma and other conditions.”
Rademacher-Wedd graduated from Whitney Young Magnet high school in June and is taking a gap year to tutor CPS students. Her sister is going into seventh grade at the Kenwood Academy Academic Center on the South Side.
“That’s definitely a concern that I have, especially with my sister and myself being at school, and my mom is a teacher so she will also be at school,” she said.
While district officials said they would be prepared for remote learning if infections increase, some parents are not willing to take the risk. Rufino, the mother of four from Back of the Yards, worries because she is diabetic. She also knows CPS schools struggle with cleanliness and knows her kids won’t wear masks all day.
Jackson says parents will be able to opt out of in-person learning entirely, and CPS has promised cleaned schools, 400 extra janitors, temperature checks and masks.
The district is also in the process of hiring substitute teachers if regular teachers have to quarantine.
As far as juniors and seniors, Jackson on Tuesday said, after already getting a lot of feedback, she is evaluating which high schools might be able to do in person for older grades.
But for every student who wants in person instruction there is another who doesn’t.
“I don’t think reopening in general might be the best idea right now.” said Eric Garcia, a junior at Lane Tech. “If it’s not safe to send a lot of kids in, then why go through the trouble right now, and just focus more on at-home learning, making sure that that system is set up correctly.”
For now, before making any changes and putting a final stamp on CPS’ reopening plan, Jackson wants parents to fill out another survey and participate in several virtual meetings that begin July 27.