How to tell if Chicago’s school reopening is a success? Experts say it’s complicated.

Students eat lunch behind Plexiglass shields at Dawes Elementary in Chicago’s Ashburn neighborhood. Chicago reopened schools Monday to about 6,000 students despite opposition to the plan from its teachers’ union.
Students eat lunch behind Plexiglass shields at Dawes Elementary in Chicago’s Ashburn neighborhood. District officials have said Chicago’s elementary school reopening has been a success. (Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat)

Chicago district leaders have dubbed the district’s reopening a success, pointing to a relatively low number of coronavirus cases on its campuses and the importance of in-person learning for vulnerable students.

In contrast, the district’s teachers union held up the small portion of eligible students who showed up in classrooms as evidence the plan has faltered.

How to assess the success of school reopenings is a complex, nuanced question that experts — in public health and in academia — are still grappling with, even as more districts nationwide have moved to reopen classrooms. Almost a month into Chicago’s elementary reopening, there’s not enough data yet to paint a complete picture.  

The COVID-19 case counts in the district have reassured some experts. The district does not disclose data on outbreaks in its coronavirus tracker, but case numbers suggest it has avoided widespread in-school transmission — and no schools have had to close. 

Then, there’s the messier question of sizing up the learning experience students are having, both in the classroom and on screen. For instance, the district says it doesn’t track how many students have attended school in person four days a week or how many are in the classroom with a virtual teacher. 

Fewer than a quarter of students in kindergarten through eighth grade returned to the classroom this month. But, with low early in-person turnout in districts across the country, a more crucial test comes next: Has the district built enough trust with families, who face a Tuesday deadline to opt in to in-person learning in April, to see a marked uptick? 

Ultimately, some of the most crucial ways in which reopening stands to make a difference for students — in boosting academic engagement and social and emotional well-being — might be the hardest to quantify. 

“Reopening this spring might best be seen as a dress rehearsal for the full-bore reopening that happens next fall,” said Paul Zavitkovsky of the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The best we can probably hope for is that it will give kids the opportunity to fully reengage in classroom learning communities, and will let educators diagnose what most needs to be done between now and September.” 

Public health data

Since Feb. 27, on the eve of the district’s reopening, Chicago has seen COVID-19 cases in about 71 employees and 36 students — an overall dip in infections that has mirrored the decrease in cases in the broader community. Unlike the city and state’s dashboard, the district’s online COVID tracker does not include infection clusters (two or more cases that might be related) or outbreaks (five or more cases). But the district’s tracker data do suggest that cases in schools are generally isolated, notes Benjamin Master, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation who is studying school reopenings. 

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Susan Hassig, an infectious disease expert at Tulane University, said the science on school reopenings is still emerging. 

“It’s a really complicated problem, and I don’t think we have really good metrics that can be easily adopted,” she said. “In public health and with this virus in particular, there is no 100%. Our objective is to make it as safe as possible.”

Ideally, Hassig would want to see school-based COVID-19 cases that are not simply low when community-wide rates are low, but that also remain stable even if the rate of community infections fluctuates. Ultimately, she says, “A successful reopening is keeping the majority of children and staff there physically. That’s the success.” 

The early phase of Chicago’s reopening has not been without disruption: Since the district first started bringing back preschoolers and some students with special needs, it has quarantined student pods more than 100 times. (It’s unclear how many students that represents.) Last week, about 354 students and employees, or two dozen pods, were in quarantine — an uptick from the previous week, when 121 people and 12 pods quarantined, but still a relatively low number out of almost 50,000 students and 14,000 staff who have returned. 

One telling measure is the data produced by the employee and student surveillance testing program Chicago schools launched earlier this year, Master said. He said it is reassuring that the testing is catching few COVID cases amid asymptomatic employees: Of more than 18,000 tests administered since March 1, there were 11 presumptive positive cases. But the voluntary program tests only a quarter of employees a week, and it has a high rate of staff members declining to participate, making the findings less robust. (Since March 1, employees have declined 13,400 tests.)  

Academic data

Anna Volerman Beaser is a pediatrician and internist as well as the parent of a third grader who returned to his classroom at South Loop Elementary this month. As a physician, she has closely watched the district’s COVID tracker and surveillance testing data. She knew coronavirus cases in the schools were inevitable, but she has felt reassured by the apparent success in preventing major outbreaks, including the fact the district has not had to close entire schools. 

As a parent, she has thought a lot about the post-reopening experiences of her son and his peers, including those who continued to learn remotely. She knows reopening has looked different across schools and sometimes even across classrooms: In some, educators are simultaneously teaching in-person and online learners, while others have been able to assign teachers to focus solely on remote students. Some have offered two days of in-person learning, while others have offered four. 

“In an ideal scenario, we want to give everybody the strongest possible education, and that should be the goal even in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “But the challenge becomes: There are so many different pieces of this puzzle.” 

Experts say hard-and-fast metrics on the academic impact of reopening can be hard to come by for now, and it can be tricky to interpret data as districts forge new ground by bringing students back amid the pandemic’s disruption. Nathaniel Malkus, the deputy director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said he would hope to see higher daily attendance for students who have returned to the classroom  — but online and in-person attendance cannot be readily compared, and failing to see that uptick is not a mark of failure. 

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“We have skeleton crews coming back, and plates spinning here, and plates spinning there,” he said.  

On a given day, about one-fifth of district students expected in person are logging on remotely instead, according to data released Friday. But in-person attendance has improved, growing from two-thirds to three-quarters of students in the elementary grades during the first two weeks of the month.

In response to Freedom of Information Act requests by Chalkbeat Chicago, the district said it does not systematically track and cannot release numbers of students who learn in-person four days a week or those who have a virtual teacher in the classroom — and how these numbers vary across schools. 

The Chicago Principals and Administrators Association said that based on a survey of roughly half of Chicago’s 415 elementary schools, about a third of students might be in the classroom with an educator teaching remotely, a more common situation in schools that serve majority Black or Latino student bodies. 

The association’s Troy LaRaviere said this is an important measure of the quality of the in-person experience: “Nearly half of students in majority Black schools show up to school in person, only to be subjected to more remote learning because they don’t have an in-person teacher. It’s basically a bait-and-switch.”

Masters said building trust with educators so more return to the classroom is an important measure. Also telling would be survey data that captures the experiences students, families and employees are having in those reopened school buildings.  

The district used grading data, and a troubling rise in Fs among students of color, to build its case for reopening. But third-quarter grading data won’t be available until later this spring to show whether reopening has had an affect on those numbers.

Zavitkovsky, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said some of the more crucial questions about the success of the reopening might not be captured by solid data. The two main concerns educators kept bringing up with him during the remote learning stretch were students’ social and emotional well-being and their overall engagement in learning. So how well are schools able to address these needs post-reopening, for both in-person and online students? 

Especially during this time of disruption, there is no straightforward, easy-to-interpret assessment for this, though some measures — such as the rate at which students submit completed assignments — partly get at the question. Some Illinois school districts are gearing up to administer state standardized tests this spring, but the results will offer a limited window, Zavitkovsky said. Many families are likely to sit out the in-person assessments, and the results would not be readily comparable to previous years or across schools. 

“The pandemic has ripped away some of the packaging from the way we do business in our schools in a way that has exposed some of its weaknesses,” he said.

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How many families opt in to in-person learning during the final quarter is also an important measure of how successfully the district has built trust, experts said. From speaking with patients, colleagues and fellow parents, Volerman Beaser said there will be families who will only feel comfortable with a return to in-person learning once all their members, including the children, are vaccinated. And there are parents, especially essential workers, for which the logistical challenge hybrid learning poses is too steep. 

Still, Malkus says, “This is one of the most important short-term metrics that tells us something now.”

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