As remote learning ramps up in Chicago, a high-stakes question: Should students be learning anything new?

Chicago biology teacher Bryan Meeker had planned a photosynthesis experiment he would conduct at his kitchen table, with students watching via videoconference. 

But only a portion of Meeker’s students have the technology to tune in. Going forward with the demonstration would not be fair to the rest, he decided, and threw away the perishable kit.

As Chicago schools prepare to step up remote learning after this week’s spring break, the district has recommended schools stress revision and enrichment rather than forge full speed ahead with new material. That’s also the approach embraced by some charter schools, such as Meeker’s Garcia High in the Acero network. 

Some district schools — generally early adopters of a device-for-each-student approach — do plan to introduce new concepts, a move leaders there say is key to maintaining academic momentum. But other schools say they will emphasize holding the academic line in fairness to students who don’t have access to devices or the internet, or are too preoccupied by weathering the coronavirus outbreak to focus on learning.

“I really grapple with this because there was so much I wanted to do with my class this spring,” said Carla Jones, a teacher at Cook Elementary on Chicago’s South Side. “But we need to see our families for who they are and where they are before we can push the academics.”

District leaders say allowing each school to tailor a remote learning plan to its student body makes sense even as some parents and educators worry students across the city will have markedly different experiences. 

Ensuring that the coronavirus outbreak and school closures don’t magnify learning inequities is a daunting task: Even at schools that stick with enrichment, students who engage with the material this spring will pull ahead of peers who tune out school amid the upheaval.

Urban districts nationally are grappling with the question of just how aggressively to push academics while buildings are shuttered: High-poverty districts such as Detroit have described their approach as “enrichment,” using a blend of online and paper resources like Chicago. Others, from Miami-Dade to New York City, are working to pick up the academic pace remotely, which in New York has led the teachers union and other groups to call for reining in the academic push.

🔗Stressing enrichment

Jones, the Cook Elementary teacher, has repeatedly emailed students missing since schools closed and texted their parents through an app called Remind. She still can’t reach some families. 

“The sad reality is that those who are not responding are the ones who need the engagement the most,” she said. 

District leaders have acknowledged that even after CPS distributes 100,000 devices to students over the coming weeks, some will still be left without a computer or a reliable internet connection at home. Amid a massive shift in how schools deliver instruction, a focus on reinforcing key concepts students learned earlier this school year makes sense, officials have said. 

Still, the district’s new remote learning plan allows schools to move forward with new material if they have “a clear plan on how to deliver this content in an equitable manner.” Either way, students’ grades should not suffer if they are not able to keep up, and they should get a chance to make up missed work.

Jones and her colleagues at Cook have fully embraced the recommendation to focus on warding off academic losses. She said keeping students engaged without introducing new concepts is challenging, but it can be done by keeping schoolwork relevant. She has compiled grade-appropriate articles and podcasts about the coronavirus outbreak. 

She envisions hosting a kind of “Socratic seminar” via Google Classroom, where students weigh in on reading assignments at their own pace — even if that means using a parent’s phone after she returns from work at 8 p.m. 

Meeker, the Garcia High teacher, said there’s “heartbreak” in potentially writing off new material he’d planned to tackle this spring. He has scrapped the lab projects that are a cornerstone of his classes. Some of the students who join the biweekly virtual sessions he holds are already raring for fresh content and questioning if they’ll end the year unprepared for the college-credit courses they hoped to take next fall. 

But Meeker said many students can really benefit from drilling down on the basics, such as writing a hypothesis. And this approach is the fairest way to make it through an unprecedented time.

“This pandemic can’t be punitive toward our students,” he said. “If that means no new biology concepts for the rest of the school year, so be it.”

Emmanuel Del Rio, a high school math teacher at the district’s Kenwood Academy High School, agreed. 

“We have to keep it as simple as possible,” he said. “The most important thing is to maintain and retain what we’ve already done.” 

🔗Moving forward

In contrast, Senn High School Principal Mary Beck said her school and team of educators are ready to forge ahead with new content. Last fall, the school provided a Chromebook to each of its roughly 1,600 students, almost 90% of whom qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty. Students took home the tablets last month when the school closed, and staff have been troubleshooting internet access and other issues since. 

As with all district schools, teachers will hold daily office hours to help students with questions and offer feedback on assignments. Classes will convene via videoconference. With most of the upperclassmen in International Baccalaureate courses — a challenging college-credit program that generally spans two school years — students just can’t afford to fall behind, Beck said. 

“When a student has an A and has already done the review and revision, what are they going to do?” Beck said. “We need to keep pushing them.” 

Lee Elementary on Chicago’s Southwest Side, another district school that assigns a tablet to each of its 800 students, will start handing out those tablets to students next week. Students in the upper grades already are versed in using the devices for schoolwork, such as submitting assignments via an online platform. 

For the younger students, the coming weeks will be “almost like starting the first day of school,” Principal Lisa Epstein said. For that reason, the school will emphasize revision and enrichment at first, she said, but the goal is to tackle new material later in the year. 

Kat Shapiro, a district special education teacher, said Westinghouse College Prep high school worked hard to set clear, consistent remote learning expectations. The high school will introduce new material in the coming weeks, but teachers plan to keep revisiting the most effective ways to convey it. In the end, educators likely will not be able to reach some students. 

“We are putting work out into the ether,” Shapiro said. “Sometimes it comes back to us, and sometimes it doesn’t.” 

Jennie Biggs of the parent group Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education said members this week reported the divergent approaches schools are taking. That includes communication about schools’ plans: Some parents have received detailed information about what next week will look like, and others have gone hunting for it on school websites.

Biggs said parents appreciate that schools are entering uncharted territory and fully expect trial and error. Still, she worries that students appear poised to experience school very differently in different parts of the city. 

“Looking from school to school, we see a lot of inequities in how remote learning is addressed,” she said.