Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union are struggling to reach an agreement on a safe reopening of schools by Monday, the day when CPS leaders have set for in-person learning to begin for up to 62,000 elementary students. Chicago Teachers Union members say they will only teach remotely unless a deal is reached.
But with the tight focus on safety, there’s been less attention paid to what kind of education students might receive once they return — and many principals, teachers and parents say what’s on the table isn’t good for students.
In interviews with WBEZ, they worried there won’t be enough adults to supervise all the children that return. They also are concerned that the transition from all remote learning will mean less instructional time for students than they have with remote learning now. Some say their schools don’t have the internet bandwidth to keep all students connected to their teachers.
CPS leaders insist their schools are up to the task and have highlighted principals who say they are ready to go. District officials say they’ve been planning for months and successfully brought about 3,200 preschool and special education students back into classrooms part-time starting Jan. 11. In-person instruction for those students was put on pause Wednesday, when CTU members collectively refused to return to classrooms.
“We feel strongly, and we are very committed to get students back into school,” CPS CEO Janice Jackson said this week. “We believe that we can do it. Before we were relying on our plan. Now we have almost three weeks of data of a successful reopening with our students in pre-K programs and [special education] cluster programs throughout the city.”
Many parents are thrilled their children are back. They say it’s given their families a taste of normalcy and is giving their children more structure and a chance to socialize — away from a screen.
At this smaller scale, some parents and teachers say, CPS’ hybrid model, which includes two days in the classroom, could work. But they say bringing thousands more elementary students is an entirely different story.
As many as 62,000 elementary students as well as up to 5,200 pre-K and special education students could be back on Monday, which is about 32% of all 208,000 students given the option to return. The vast majority of students will continue learning remotely. Most teachers will be expected to teach the two groups of students — in person and remote — simultaneously.
Will there be enough adults?
Principals interviewed by WBEZ this week say they are staying up late trying to figure out how to make sure students are properly supervised. That’s because staff are still waiting to hear on their requests to the school district to work from home because they have a medically compromised family member in their household.
The school district has opened up 2,000 positions, some of which are being used to fill in the gaps for teachers and staff being allowed to work from home. But one principal said he was given two positions; yet six staff will work from home. CPS hasn’t provided data on how many of the 2,000 positions have been filled.
“It is an impossible task on the same level of making time go backwards,” said the principal, one of many who asked to remain anonymous over concerns about speaking out publicly. He said students at his school will essentially be doing remote learning at school, working on laptops in classrooms.
Teachers, many of whom also asked to remain anonymous, say they are getting mixed messages from district officials. Sometimes they are being told to work with their regular students. Other times, they are told to teach outside their certification as classrooms shift to adjust for teachers working remotely or to create pods with balanced numbers of students.
Some principals say they see no educational benefits in bringing back students two days a week. They say this especially true in classrooms where students will sit at computers and their teacher will be remote.
“What’s the point?” one Southwest Side principal said, adding his school simply doesn’t have enough staff available to cover all the classrooms.
At New Field Elementary School on the North Side, parents say their school also needs help with staffing. About half the student population said they plan to come back, but a large number of teachers received permission to work from home or have a request pending.
“There is no room for error,” Annie Gill-Bloyer, a parent and chair of the Local School Council at New Field, said at this week’s board of education meeting. “The whole house of cards just falls apart if just a few people report to work. My concern lies in simply having the staffing in place to have a shadow of a chance to make this plan work for both in-person and remote students. We need help with staffing.”`
Internet bandwidth and simultaneous instruction
Some school officials say their schools don’t have the internet capacity to connect in-person students to remote classmates.
This will prevent in-person students from participating in video chats or breakout room discussions. For in-person students, it’ll be harder to sit near each other to have those small group discussions.
“They’ll be sitting six feet apart, and the only way to have a full discussion would be through a whole group class conversation or through shouting over each other in the classroom,” said Julian Connolly, a middle school teacher.
She says her school has a large number of students learning English who need that verbal practice. “All children in general are English language learners, so the fact that kids can’t practice to articulate their thinking, and they have to write it down, they are limited in what they can say because they might not be able to spell the word.”
Several principals say they were told they’ll get a bandwidth upgrade within a few months. But that is not going to help right now.
Reduced learning time
Jose Frausto is a computer science teacher at Tonti Elementary School. In addition to feeling unsafe teaching in person, he said, “instruction is going to be greatly diminished.”
During remote learning, Frausto uses a unique setup at his home that includes multiple screens. He can see all his students and teach them up close. At school, he will have to plug and unplug his equipment at least five times a day, “moving and teaching the next class within the next hour sometimes, with zero minutes in between.”
Principals also say under the new hybrid schedule there will be less learning time. One principal told WBEZ that on Wednesdays, a day when all students will be remote, there will be only three hours of synchronous learning as opposed to three hours and 45 minutes.
Cortney Ritsema, who has twins in the preschool at New Field Elementary, has already seen a decrease in instruction. Before the shift from remote to in-person learning, they had an hour a day with the teacher. Once in-person learning was implemented, they only have 45 minutes.
Connolly, the North Side middle school teacher, also said there will be a drop in instructional minutes in the hybrid model. A lot of learning time will be lost during in-person classes, she said, as schools manage logistics like staggered arrivals and dismissals.
The potential upside to this? Many parents and teachers have complained that the amount of screen learning time expected during remote learning is excessive.
Parents are voting with their feet
The uncertainty about what students will experience in-person prompted some parents who initially picked in-person instruction to change their mind.
“I had real concerns about their ability to execute,” said Melinda Young, a parent of two students at Skinner West. “Combined with what I understood about how the day will take place, it just didn’t feel to me like the right place for my children — not only from a safety perspective but also from an educational standpoint.”
A coalition of frustrated parents is planning a “sick out” on Monday to protest the quality of the reopening plan. Their children will not attend classes. Meanwhile, families who want in-person instruction for their children are also speaking up. They say more students are suffering from depression and anxiety being home all day.
“My son is in kindergarten, and he is so excited to return to school,” Elizabeth Levey said at last week’s board of education meeting. “I don’t know what [we will] tell him if next week’s schools reopening falls apart.”