Chicago releases more details about ‘phased-in’ school reopening plan amid sharp enrollment drop

School buses are parked in front of North-Grand High School in Chicago. A U.S. flag flies from a pole in front of the school.
Chicago Public Schools released more details about their plans to begin a phased-in return to school buildings in November, (Stacey Rupolo for Chalkbeat)

Chicago Public Schools officially announced Friday that it will stick with remote learning for its second quarter but will attempt a phased-in reopening of school buildings, starting with pre-kindergarten and some special education students.

The district will aim to bring additional grades back to school buildings as early as January. 

The plan, which district leaders said was informed in part by troubling enrollment and attendance numbers just made public, already is provoking strong opposition from the city’s powerful teachers union.

Similar to national trends, the district has seen enrollment dip markedly this fall, with the numbers of 3- and 4-year-old pre-kindergartners down by 34% — and down 44% among Black students. Meanwhile, the district said engagement among Black and Latino students remains significantly lower than among their peers. 

With 14,500 fewer students compared to last year, or a 4% drop, Chicago reported the sharpest enrollment decline in two decades. District officials said they would survey families with students in preschool and special education “cluster” programs next week about their interest in returning to five days of in-person instruction. All families will have the option to continue with remote learning. 

Officials said they will continue to watch public health data before making a final decision closer to the start of the quarter on Nov. 9, noting that while COVID-19 case numbers have gone up, the city’s test positivity rate of just below 5% remains within a range the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider a lower risk for school transmission. They pointed to data that shows that Chicago students who returned to private school classrooms this fall have lower rates of COVID-19 than other children in the city. 

“Providing in-person instruction to our most vulnerable students is truly an issue of equity,” school chiefs Janice Jackson said Friday, calling a bid to welcome them into school buildings “a moral imperative.” 

The district said it is taking “stringent health and safety measures,” including contact tracing, access to free and rapid COVID-19 testing for students and staff who show symptoms or report exposure, and a new protocol to notify the public of confirmed coronavirus cases at schools. Chicago Public Schools now has a COVID-19 case tracker on its web site, which shows 172 adult and 5 student cases since March, including 14 employees and two students as of Oct. 10.

The district’s teachers union, however, was swift to denounce the district’s intent to reopen school buildings, calling it “dangerous” and “irresponsible.” At a Friday morning press conference, union leaders criticized the district for not engaging with teachers and families in crafting its plan. 

“You cannot put a plan together in the dark of the night that excludes our parents, that excludes our teachers, that excludes our union,” said union vice president Stacy Davis Gates. “What we need in this moment is more engagement, more collaboration.” 

The union’s attorney, Thad Goodchild, questioned the legality of the district’s reopening process because of its lack of consultation with the union, and urged officials to work with educators. 

“It does not have to be like this,” Goodchild said. 

Disability advocates pressed for reopening

Anne Igoe, the parent of a fourth grade student who attends a cluster program, said that, if asked this past summer after a difficult spring of remote learning, she would have jumped at the chance to do in-person schooling for her son. 

But this fall, Igoe, whose child attends Kilmer Elementary in Rogers Park, said teachers had worked closely with her to put together a daily schedule that worked well to manage her son’s specific focus and attention needs. “This fall I have seen teachers and staff in the classroom work absolute miracles with remote learning,” she said.

That included starting the day with a lesson that involves only her son and two teachers, and limited screen time, as well as more tools for the family to support her son day-to-day. “I’m gonna keep my kid home,” she said. 

Still, Igoe agreed that special education students should be prioritized for in-person learning, but wanted to see a plan that has all stakeholders on board, including teachers. 

Chris Yun, an education policy analyst for the disability rights organization Access Living, said the decision to reopen school buildings for children with moderate to severe special needs is “the right direction” and something that advocates had been pressing the district to do.

“These children should be prioritized,” she said.

But she said she wanted to hear more information from Chicago officials about how they plan to keep children and special education staff safe. She also wants to see smaller cohorts of children to reduce risk among the often medically fragile, a plan for special education staffing increases in coordination with the teachers’ union, and a town hall for parents so they can ask detailed questions and get answers.

“A survey is just one-way communication. People are forced to say yes or no. When they are unsure, they tend to say no. You can help address people’s fears when you say, ‘This is what we’re working on and what we plan to do,’” Yun said.

Weighing learning loss versus COVID-19 rates

A string of other large urban districts — from Miami-Dade to Philadelphia to Denver — have started bringing students back to classrooms or announced plans to do so in the coming weeks. Still, amid a fall uptick in coronavirus cases nationally, district officials across the country are watching those numbers closely and in some cities slowing down their reopening plans.

District leaders in Chicago said they are consulting closely with the city’s health department and other public health officials. The city’s public health commissioner, Allison Arwady, pointed to recent national studies showing low rates of COVID-19 spread in schools, easing fears that they would be sites of significant virus transmission. She called the outcomes in schools and childcare settings “one of the few good news stories of this pandemic.”

She said she is much more concerned about the developmental fallout from missed time in the classrooms, especially for students with special needs.

“I am a pediatrician,” she said. “If I thought this plan was dangerous, I obviously would not be supporting it.”   

Other safety measures the district said it would take are: grouping students in “pods” throughout the day to help with social distancing, requiring daily temperature checks, hiring 400 additional custodians, and installing sneeze guards. 

The district, which said last month that it’s assessing the ventilation systems in all its buildings, said it has already spent $65 million this year to upgrade and repair these systems. Officials vowed to make sure “no student is in a classroom that does not have proper ventilation,” though it is unclear when the assessment process and upgrades will be completed.

Union officials said Friday they estimated fully updating schools’ ventilation systems would cost significantly more — and they said their concerns about safety remain. Leaders expressed concern about how the district would keep them informed of COVID-19 cases in schools, and planned to launch their own COVID-19 tracker to share information on COVID-19 cases reports directly from union members. 

One open question is how many teachers will return to work.

District leaders said along with a survey of parents of pre-kindergarten and special education students, they would also approach teachers in their programs about their intent to return to work. They said they can tap their pool of substitute teachers and don’t have concerns about staffing at this point. Jackson dismissed the pushback from the union, though she acknowledged the district has to work out some issues related to the reopening with union leaders.

Linda Perales, a special education teacher at Corkery Elementary in Little Village, said her in-person classroom for high-needs students usually hosted five adults and 12 students. “Working with students with such high needs makes it impossible to socially distance,” Perales said at the union’s press conference on Friday.

Parents want more input 

As news of the reopening plan leaked Thursday, some parents said they were taken aback by the lack of a survey or some other way of engaging families in the district’s decision-making around reopening. 

The parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Schools said in a statement Friday that parents have many questions, concerns, and ideas about how to improve remote learning and approach reopening schools. But the district has not spelled out any plan or process to engage with them.

“There is a huge lack of trust between families and CPS,” the group said. “The absence of family engagement on schooling during a pandemic is a failure on the part of our district.”

When asked about parent engagement Friday, Jackson said the district has been hearing from parents and engaged with them in the late summer and early fall — input she said has continued to inform decisions. Schools with pre-kindergarten and cluster programs will host virtual meetings with their parents.

“We absolutely intend to survey parents,” she said, “but we have to provide them with a plan and give them something to react to.”

Cassie Walker Burke contributed to this report.

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