Chicago Public Schools proposes hybrid of online, in-person classes for fall, despite union opposition

Debora Carley

CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools has released a much-anticipated blueprint for fall instruction, saying it plans to adopt a hybrid-learning model that will bring most students back for two-consecutive days of in-person learning on a rotating basis if public health officials say it can be done safely. Under the “preliminary […]

CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools has released a much-anticipated blueprint for fall instruction, saying it plans to adopt a hybrid-learning model that will bring most students back for two-consecutive days of in-person learning on a rotating basis if public health officials say it can be done safely.

Under the “preliminary framework” shared Friday, students in kindergarten through 10th grade will have two days of in-person learning and two days of remote work at home, plus real-time virtual instruction each Wednesday. When at school, students will be grouped into pods of 15 to minimize contact with classmates. High school seniors and juniors will mostly continue to learn at home, except for those who need additional support or those in vocational programs.

The district also outlined increased hygiene protocols for its buildings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus: 400 additional custodians have been hired to clean facilities, students will have to wear cloth masks and comply with daily temperature checks before entering school and a supply of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes will be available in every classroom.

Nothing in the framework is finalized — and it’s sure to elicit opposition from the Chicago Teachers Union, which has said schools should remain virtual in the fall. CPS says it will solicit feedback from parents in five virtual meetings through the end of July, with sessions held in English and Spanish, and parents can also provide reactions in a new survey launched by the district. The district will share the final plan in early August.

“We all agree collectively that the health and safety of our students and staff must come first,” CPS CEO Janice Jackson said in a news conference Friday with Mayor Lori Lightfoot to announce the proposal. “We believe that a hybrid model will be the best model to meet the needs of all of our students throughout the city. This model allows many of our students to reap the benefits that they can only achieve through in-person instruction in front of a highly-qualified teacher.”

The mayor said she wanted to make it clear that to parents who don’t want to send their children back to school that “there will be options before you.”

Lightfoot also said: “The reality is, every time we wake up and even in our home, there is risk. What our job is, is to mitigate that risk. And I want everybody to know we are focused and determined to do everything possible to build a safe and nurturing learning environment for your children, whether virtual or hybrid.”

She added that means also having a plan in place for when cases of coronavirus occur in a school community — “and they will occur,” she said.

The majority of parents wanted a hybrid model, Jackson said, citing surveys.

But the plan immediately yielded criticism, despite plans for more public feedback before arrangements are finalized.

Chicago Alderman Maria Hadden posted on Facebook that it was “incredibly upsetting” to her that the reopening framework was released “with no engagement with your elected representatives in City Council.”

“Sure, CPS says that you’ll have input, but I’m skeptical that whatever feedback they take will be integrated into their decisions,” Hadden wrote. She said CPS gave City Council members a week to hold a community meeting and provide feedback prior to Friday’s announcement. She said CPS scheduled a briefing for the City Council Friday, something she said she has requested for weeks.

Some other highlights of the preliminary framework include:

In-person learning will be available everyday for students in special education clusters because of these students’ unique needs and the small size of their programs. Schools that have the space and staffing capacity will also prioritize in-person classes for English language learners.

Scheduling rotations are designed to limit the student population to about 50% of typical levels on any given day. Full and half day Pre-K programs will be held in person.

Every parent can decline in-person learning for their students, regardless of whether the student has an underlying medical condition. Later this month, CPS will share revised procedures for staff with medical or care taking needs who might need accommodations or a leave of absence.

CPS will continue providing computers to students who still need the technology to do their school work. The district will extend internet hot spots to students in temporary living situations and provide free, high speed internet to 100,000 students.

The district’s decision to reinstate some degree of face-to-face instruction contrasts with other cities that are battling greater inclines in COVID-19 infections. California’s two largest school districts in Los Angeles and San Diego announced Monday that classes would continue as online-only in the fall. Public schools in Houston will delay the start of their school year and use remote instruction for the first six weeks.

In the Chicago area, many suburban districts have begun to roll out their plans for the school year, with a number choosing to pursue a hybrid of remote and in-person learning.

The guidelines released Friday are only preliminary plans, and Lightfoot says a final decision may not come until mid-August, as CPS officials await further input from teachers, parents, students and public health experts.

However, the CTU has previously said it believes there is not enough time to institute a plan for in-person learning that will keep students and staff safe, especially considering the resources that would require.

CPS has already guaranteed mandatory face masks, temperature checks and sanitizing protocols for when schools do reopen but the CTU has also called for further safety measures, including a nurse in every school and a transportation plan for students.

With the school year quickly approaching, the CTU believes continuing online learning is the only way to truly ensure the safety of students and staff. If CPS commits to remote learning now, CTU said the district can begin working to ensure all students have access to broadband and their own device.

“There is simply no way to guarantee safety for in-school learning during an out-of-control pandemic — and that means we must revert to remote learning until the spread of this virus is contained,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement Wednesday. “We stand for a safe and equitable reopening of the schools, but today COVID-19 cases are soaring instead of dissipating.”

Patricia Brekke, the principal of Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School who spoke at the press conference with Lightfoot and Jackson, admitted it would ‘not feel right to have all of my students come back to the building in the fall, no matter how much I miss them.”

But she said the hybrid model “strikes me as the right balance. … While my upperclassmen may not need to come into the building every day, it’s my hope that having some face-to-face time and instruction will help set the tone for my freshmen and sophomore students. It will help us continue to build school culture, and most importantly, it will help them how to learn at home efficiently and effectively.”

Jackson said provisions will also be made for teachers who have pre-existing or high-risk health conditions but that “the expectation will be that everybody else comes to work.”

CPS said it tried to build flexibility into its plan so that instruction can be altered should the pandemic worse or improve. In the event of a possible outbreak, CPS will consult with state and local health experts about whether a school needs to be closed. If infections are isolated to a group of students, “it is possible that a pod would need to be quarantined based on the level of contact, rather than an entire school community,” the plan said.

The remote learning experiment that suddenly gripped the nation this spring has also provided some pointers moving forward. In the fall, CPS will implement new requirements for learning based on guidance from the Illinois Board of Education. Further details will be communicated in August, but for now they include developing an attendance tracking system for students, ensuring that each student completes a minimum of five hours of daily instruction or school work and rolling out Google platforms for e-learning district across the district.

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