Here’s a first look at Chicago’s new remote learning plan, which will include 100,000 devices for students

Streaming live mini-lessons for students. Virtual office hours when educators can field student questions. A push to distribute 100,000 digital devices to students. Pass-fail grading recommendations.

Those are just some of the elements of Chicago Public Schools’ new roadmap for remote learning, now that schools will be closed past mid-April and possibly longer. In releasing some of its expectations for its campuses on Monday, the district, which remains hamstrung by uneven student access to technology and the internet, stressed this is not a full-blown e-learning plan: Schools will continue to offer both digital and paper assignments, with the overarching goal of preventing students from losing ground rather than forging ahead with new material. 

Individual schools will get considerable flexibility to design their own remote learning plans, due by next Monday, April 6, with a formal start to remote learning in the district slated for Monday, April 13. The district said many more specifics about its plan are expected later this week. 

“Remote learning plans will be as diverse as the school communities here in Chicago,” said Schools chief Janice Jackson at a Monday event with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who called the shift to learning online a “herculean effort.” 

One of the questions now is how Chicago can roll out school-led plans equitably and in a way that doesn’t widen disparities among schools with divergent resources. According to the mayor’s office, about 145 of the 500 district-run schools offer devices for every student, and in recent days, some educators and parents have raised concerns about how a statewide switch to remote instruction, driven largely by e-learning, might lead some of the city and state’s most vulnerable students to fall behind.

“There is really no way to equalize the playing field in a time like this, especially given the digital divide,” said LaTanya McDade, Chicago Public Schools’ chief education officer. 

But she said the district has set basic expectations for all school plans, such as requiring that teachers make themselves available to students for at least four hours a day. In addition, teachers will only grade assignments if that will improve students’ overall grade in their classes. 

How Chicago’s learning plan compares 

Chicago officials said it is too soon to tell if the school closures will stretch past April 20 — or if the district might consider taking advantage of an option to extend the school year that the state has offered. District leaders also said more guidance is forthcoming for students who worry about graduating on time this spring.

Other questions about the district’s plans remain: What, if any, training will educators receive to help them with the transition to online instruction? How much additional support will English learners and students with disabilities receive?

Across the country, large urban districts have transitioned to remote learning at different paces. Miami-Dade County, the country’s fourth-largest district, began surveying parents about their tech access in early March and had remote learning for all going by mid-month. New York City, the country’s largest district with more than 1 million students, started remote learning last week. Both Miami-Dade and New York districts distributed a large number of devices to students who would otherwise lack access to technology and the internet. 

Los Angeles got started nearly two weeks ago, though officials acknowledged Monday that online attendance among high schoolers has been spotty. Other districts, such as Denver, have taken longer to get going after initially extending their spring breaks. In places where officials know they can’t get devices or internet connectivity to all students quickly, such as Memphis and Nashville, districts have struck deals with public television stations to air lessons and continue to distribute paper packets.

Until Monday,  Chicago’s district leaders had held off sharing its own remote plan until Illinois released statewide guidelines. Those guidelines came late Friday and said that, by Tuesday, all districts must kick off remote learning “that provides students with instruction and access to educators through whatever means possible” — though the state suggested districts can take up to two weeks to iron out their plans. 

The state is strongly encouraging districts to refrain from grading students when that hurts their overall grade in the class and to consider adopting pass-or-fail grading.

“A focus on keeping children emotionally and physically safe, fed, and engaged in learning should be our first priority during this unprecedented time,” the recommendations said.

Chicago is tapping into the $75 million coronavirus emergency fund that the school board approved last week — money that district leaders hope to recoup at least in part from federal and donor dollars. 

CPS will distribute 65,000 digital devices schools already have available. Last week the district also bought an additional 37,000 devices, primarily Chromebook laptops, expected to arrive within two- to three-weeks. 

Officials said they hope to acquire more computers with help from the philanthropic community, but they had no details yet. Jackson said donations so far have largely gone to supporting the district’s massive food distribution program, which as of Friday had served 2 million meals to families, according to the mayor’s office.  

The district said it doesn’t have the resources to ensure access to the internet across the city, but Lightfoot said leaders have appealed to phone and broadband providers to help expand access for students. (In New York, some internet service providers have stepped up to offer free access to city students.)

In handing out devices, the Chicago district will prioritize schools based on a neighborhood “hardship index” and the portion of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch or live in temporary living situations. 

The district worked collaboratively with the Chicago Teachers Union on remote learning plans last week and over the weekend, according to Jackson and a union spokeswoman. The schools chief acknowledged the difficult role parents will continue to play in guiding student learning as some parents, including the district’s own educators, are now working from home. 

“Parents, keep calm,” she said. “We know it’s a lot, but you can do it.”

Diverse approaches

As information about the district’s plan to step up instruction remotely has started trickling out, students and families — as well as educators — have raised questions about what is expected. At some schools, administrators announced schoolwide plans to get students on Google Classroom, where they would be able to turn in assignments virtually and access new content. Others stressed a more hybrid approach, offering families the option of picking up additional learning packets during food distribution hours each weekday morning. 

Already, some educators have expressed concerns about low participation and what can be done to encourage more students to engage with schools. Principal Emily Feltes at North-Grand High School in the Hermosa neighborhood on the city’s West Side sent a note to students over the weekend teasing the district’s forthcoming remote learning plans. She told them that the coming weeks will not hurt their overall grades — but that doesn’t mean they are off the hook, noting: “You want to pass the semester to get your credits right??? Then you need to do the work.”

Jennifer Sadler, the parent of a fifth-grader at Chicago’s South Loop Elementary, says she was taken aback when her daughter got an online quiz in her math class last week. The assignment heightened her anxiety about education disparities in the district and widening opportunity gaps between students who will get a chance to improve their grades and advance academically and those who won’t.

“I have faith and hope the district is putting plans in place that are equitable,” she said. “Everybody needs to have the same opportunities.”

Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, says hurdles related to technology and internet access loom large in the largely Latino neighborhood. As the group awaited details about the district’s intentions, it moved ahead with its own efforts to distribute tablets to students in neighborhood schools with which it partners. The organization is also working on a plan to provide “tele-therapy” and remote case management for students and families — social services it usually offers in the schools.

“Technology needs to get into kids’ hands for any of this to work,” Brosnan said. 

At Monday’s press conference, Lightfoot said she is making a “sacred promise” to Chicago families: “We will not allow this crisis to become an obstacle to our students’ futures and dreams.”

Sarah Darville contributed reporting.