What Can Catholic Schools Teach CPS About In-Person Learning?

Catholic schools have stayed in-person through the pandemic. It’s made Chicago Public Schools think it can do the same.

Dismissal on Tuesday, Nov. 18 after a day of in-person learning at St. Matthias Catholic School on Chicago's North Side. Kate N. Grossman / WBEZ
Dismissal on Tuesday, Nov. 18 after a day of in-person learning at St. Matthias Catholic School on Chicago's North Side. Kate N. Grossman / WBEZ

What Can Catholic Schools Teach CPS About In-Person Learning?

Catholic schools have stayed in-person through the pandemic. It’s made Chicago Public Schools think it can do the same.

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For the last three months, Catholic schools across the Chicago area have carried on with in-person learning, a relative rarity as COVID-19 has moved the majority of schools in Illinois to remote learning. It’s an experiment Chicago Public Schools has been closely watching and cites as one reason it can roll out its latest plan to resume some in-person schooling beginning in January.

Lidia Evangelista is one of the many parents who feels in-person school is better for her daughter, despite a spike in COVID-19 infections in the Chicago area.

“She just thrives better at the school with the instruction and the routine, and I really wanted to keep that for her,” Evangelista said of her fourth grader at Our Lady of Charity in Cicero.

But many teachers aren’t convinced they are safe. Some Catholic school teachers say they feel stressed and anxious. And, like the Chicago Teachers Union, they want their schools to stick with remote learning.

“Listen to the teachers, because we are the ones who are directly affected. We are the ones who are being exposed. It feels like a lot of us aren’t being heard,” said a math teacher who works at a Catholic school on Chicago’s Northwest Side. She asked not to use her name out of fear of losing her job.

Our Lady of Charity is among the 199 Archdiocese of Chicago schools in Cook and Lake counties offering in-person learning. There are about 62,000 students in archdiocese and independent Catholic schools, according to the archdiocese.

Citing success at parochial and private schools, CPS is now planning to resume some in-person classes starting in January. Preschoolers and some special education students will have the option of returning in-person on Jan. 11. All elementary school students can choose to return part-time starting Feb. 1.

City officials say they are greatly concerned about the significant increase in COVID-19 this fall, but they are also concerned about the students who are lagging behind academically.

“The reality is that our Black and Latinx students, our youngest students and highest-need learners have not been equitably served,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement on Tuesday. “The decision to begin in-person learning this January will restore their access to high-quality instruction and is the result of balancing our commitment to equity with our current public health situation.”

CPS officials hope that with a strong mitigation plan, its schools can also reopen safely and implement school-based learning, “even amid concerning levels of transmission in the community.” They cite a low incidence of school-based transmission at Catholic schools.

However, the risk is there. Since March more than 400 people with COVID-19 have been in Chicago public school buildings, according to CPS numbers. Only a small number of staff are working in-person. The Chicago Teachers Union is reporting more than 400 cases since the start of this school year.

Students gather outside St. Matthias Catholic School on Nov. 18, 2020. Kate N. Grossman / WBEZ

The Archdiocese of Chicago model

Archdiocese of Chicago officials argue that their safety measures are working well, despite having COVID-19 cases at some schools.

Their model, parts of which CPS plans to follow, includes cleaning protocols, contact tracing and “keeping students in cohorts which means the same students stay together every day, all day, for their learning and that they stay with the same teachers,” said Justin Lombardo, chief human resources officer for the Archdiocese of Chicago and coleader of the archdiocesan COVID-19 task force.

Aside from ensuring that students and staff follow social distance and cleanliness protocols, Lombardo said the archdiocese has six contact tracers, including two nurses.

“When we get the report of either a close contact or a positive case, as soon as we are alerted we remove the child or the staff member from the school,” Lombardo said.

Lombardo said the number of cases in Catholic schools are low, though the archdiocese doesn’t track those numbers. He and others cite preliminary research showing that schools aren’t hotspots for COVID-19 transmission.

“[Cases] are from familial transmission or congregate settings or social gatherings outside of school that the infections are happening,” he said.

Other experts say while transmission during school is rare, the data are also incomplete.

There have been no outbreaks of five or more cases associated with schools in Cook County in the last 30 days, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Overall, in the last month, 80 schools in Cook County have potentially been exposed to the virus, including some Catholic schools. All these schools had one or more people with a confirmed or probable case who visited.

Weekly state data also show COVID-19 cases among school-age children in Cook County are on the rise. But not all cases are associated with schools.

Governor JB Pritzker suspended all high school winter sports beginning Friday as part of broader restrictions in Illinois in response to the most recent surge in cases.

Archdiocese officials, Lombardo said, are constantly reevaluating their protocols. But for now their plan is to continue offering in-person school, as well as a virtual option, for parents who want their children home.

“A huge struggle”

As the numbers of infections increase, many Catholic school teachers say their stress levels are also rising.

“My classroom, for instance, is really small, so the students aren’t six feet apart, but they are apart,” the Northwest Side Catholic teacher said.

She said teachers get gloves and masks, and they are required to clean the desks and chairs every day. But she and other teachers feel like there isn’t enough being done to protect them. This is a major concern for the Chicago Teachers Union and why they say they are opposing in-person learning.

“There were some days when the floor wasn’t clean and the classroom wasn’t clean and it’s frustrating and stressful,” she said.

This math teacher is simultaneously doing in-person and remote instruction, which is also a strain. She also stopped seeing her parents and friends out of fear of bringing the virus to them.

Overall, she said school officials act quickly when there is a confirmed infection and send people home right away. But she said all of it combined takes a toll.

“Having so much more added to my plate, that has been a huge struggle,” she said.

Now with the colder months, schools won’t be able to keep windows open or take students outside as often. Lombardo said the archdiocese is installing air filters in schools that need them.

In response to a rise in cases, some independent Catholic schools have already shut down in-person classes. Archdiocese-run schools will go remote for two weeks after the Christmas break to account for potential holiday gatherings.

Teachers say that’s something, but worry it won’t be long before infections in school buildings inevitably increase.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.