Chicago Public Schools announces goal to return to in-person learning with phased approach

Data released Friday shows the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly increased inequities.
In-person learning amid COVID-19

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) — Chicago Public Schools announced Friday plans for bringing some students back for in-person learning.

CPS said that while all students will begin the second quarter of school remotely, the goal is to bring some students back through a phased approach beginning with the thousands of students in pre-k and students enrolled in special education intensive and moderate cluster classrooms who cannot be served well enough under any form of remote learning.

The district, in consultation with the Chicago Department of Public Health will make a decision about in-person learning closer to the start of the second quarter, depending on where the city's COVID-19 numbers stand.

Data released Friday shows the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly increased inequities in the district, as pre-k students, special education students in cluster programs, and Black and Latinx students are attending school at significantly reduced rates relative to prior years and other students this school year.

"Though remote learning has allowed a great number of our students to safely continue learning in light of COVID-19, the fact of the matter is that it has also exacerbated social and economic inequities—preventing our youngest students, cluster program students and students of color from getting the high-quality education they deserve," said Mayor Lori Lightfoot, in a statement. "We are working on a thoughtful and strategic plan that lays a strong foundation for a return to in-person learning. With the collaboration of CPS and CDPH, we will ensure that this next phase is engaging, equitable and above all, safe—especially for our most vulnerable students."

The phased reopening approach would begin with the most vulnerable students in pre-k and intensive and moderate cluster programs who encounter significant challenges participating in remote learning without the support of a guardian, which further exacerbates inequities, CPS said. Students enrolled in pre-k are aged 3 and 4 and special education students enrolled in intensive and moderate cluster programs require a significantly modified curriculum with support in a separate classroom from general education peers for the majority of the day.

Due to the significant new operational processes needed to open schools, the district is proposing a phased approach that would begin with the students who most need to be in school and add additional grades as early as January. Later this year, the district will be engaging parents in other grades to assess their interest in returning to classrooms, CPS said.

“We have a moral imperative to do everything in our power to safely open our schools for our youngest and most vulnerable learners who cannot be served well enough by any form of remote learning,” said CPS CEO Dr. Janice K. Jackson. “We’ve gotten off to a strong start to the school year under the circumstances, but nothing can take the place of in-person instruction, especially for our youngest learners and students in cluster programs who heavily rely on guardians during remote learning. The availability of safe, in-person instruction is an issue of equity and if public health officials continue to support in-person instruction and parents choose to participate, we will be eager to open our doors as soon as possible.”

The district said it has spent the last several months ordering supplies, implementing health processes, and preparing schools for potential in-person hybrid learning. During that same time CDPH has been directly monitoring COVID cases among the thousands of students attending in-person private and parochial schools in Chicago, as well as among the staff at these schools.

CDPH has also been closely watching the emerging national data on COVID risk in schools, recognizing that many settings around the country with much more poorly controlled local outbreaks have continued in-person education. In both local and national settings, the data has shown that where schools have strong mitigation practices in place – and a rigorous commitment to maintaining them – the risk of COVID spread is low, and often lower than it is in the community at large.

“CDPH closely tracks cases in all youth settings including daycares, camps, athletic teams, and schools, and the data shows us that when the proper precautions are taken, transmission in those settings is rare,” said CDPH Commissioner Allison Arwady, M.D.

With strong protocols around screening, mask wearing, social distancing and cohorting, hand hygiene and environmental cleaning, paired with appropriate case investigation, contact tracing, testing, and quarantine when cases are detected, “we’re confident that we can start rephasing in-person education safely,” she said.

To protect anyone in a school building, the district has committed to the following measures:
Face Coverings:  Cloth face coverings will be provided to all staff and students and required at all times.
Pods: Students and educators will be grouped into stable pods or small class sizes to minimize exposure to other students, allow for social distancing in classrooms, and support contact tracing
Daily Screenings: Temperature checks, hand washing, and daily symptom screenings are required before students enter the classroom.
Testing: To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the district will ensure that any student or staff member who is symptomatic or a close contact of someone who tested positive has access to a free COVID-19 test.
• Contact Tracing: To help reduce the transmission of COVID-19, CPS has hired dedicated staff to support the intake of cases and provide proper notification. CPS will work in coordination with CDPH to ensure that those identified as close contacts have rapid contact tracing and are connected to city resources such as monitoring and testing.
Additional Custodians: To ensure comprehensive cleaning protocols are completed every day, the district is hiring 400 additional custodians.
Sanitizer and Soap: The district invested over $3.5 million to secure over 50,000 hand sanitizer dispensers in all high-traffic areas and soap dispensers to support regular hand washing and sanitizing.
Disinfectant Wipes: The district allocated over $2 million to purchase 86,000 containers of EPA approved disinfectant wipes for classrooms, offices and other high-touch areas.
Hospital-Grade Disinfectant Sprayers: Every CPS school has a hospital-grade mister spray unit that will evenly apply EPA-approved disinfectant for maximum disinfection.
Community Notifications: CPS adopted consistent procedures and community notification protocols developed by CDPH to respond to any confirmed cases of COVID-19. To ensure public awareness, the district is tracking confirmed COVID cases at
Sneeze Guards and Signage: All schools installed sneeze guards and other physical barriers to protect staff when visitors arrive, and posted signage throughout school facilities to emphasize new policies and procedures.
Ensuring Proper Ventilation in Every Classroom: In addition to the measures outlined in the district’s reopening framework, CPS has undertaken a multi-faceted assessment to ensure that schools are properly ventilated in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) standards.

On Wednesday, Oct. 21, the district will send all parents and guardians of pre-k and cluster program students an intent form to indicate whether they would feel comfortable sending their students to school. Parents will be asked to complete the form by Oct. 28 and parents will maintain the option to opt out at any time.

Due to the small class sizes for all pre-k and most cluster classrooms, all pre-k students would be able to attend school daily, and most students enrolled in cluster programs would be able to attend school daily, with some cluster classrooms implementing hybrid learning depending on the number of students who opt-in. In-person learning would take place in alignment with the stringent health processes outlined in the district’s reopening framework, as well as additional measures.

Every school will hold an engagement meeting to answer any questions from parents and guardians to ensure they have the information they need prior to any potential re-opening.

Families of pre-k students who opt to continue learning remotely will receive a minimum of 60 minutes of live, synchronous instruction per day. Students in all other grades who are in an intensive and moderate cluster program will receive a minimum of 150 minutes of live, synchronous instruction per day, in accordance with ISBE guidance. All related services will continue to be provided per the student’s IEP.

Parent Jasmin Cerda told WBBM Newsradio she’s feeling anxiety, disappointment, and anger at CPS and believes children could spread COVID to more vulnerable relatives.

“CPS, have you thought about who takes care of those children? Many grandparents, aunts, uncles, others, people who may have a chronic illness, they take care of them while their parents go to work.”

In anticipation of an announcement, the Chicago Teachers Union, which has been adamant against reopening school buildings, issued a statement announcing a Friday morning news conference and calling CPS’ plan “dangerous.” The union said the move “defies the science and puts thousands of students, family members and educators at risk from the deadly pandemic.”

“The Mayor’s excuse for pushing early learners and special education students back into schools is driven by CPS claims that these students are not being served well by remote learning,” CTU said. “But CPS has rejected every union proposal to improve remote learning for all students, or to improve services for the district’s most vulnerable special needs children.”

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said the district's COVID-19 measures are not good enough.

“COVID is aerosol meaning it’s airborne. We will need upgrades to ventilation systems. We will need upgrades to filtration in our school community,” she said.

Gates said “conservative estimates” are that it would take nearly a billion dollars to make the city’s schools safe enough for students to return.

“What we need in this moment is more engagement, more collaboration, more transparency, more clarity with respect to how we can re-open safely," she said.

Chicago Public Schools serves 340,650 students in 638 schools. It is the nation’s third-largest school district.