‘Too soon to tell’ about full-time fall schooling in Chicago, but students could start before Labor Day

Asked Thursday about whether Chicago Public Schools students will be able to return to classrooms full-time in the fall, the district’s No. 2, LaTanya McDade, said “it too soon to tell,” and district leaders are weighing their options.

“We have to prioritize safety,” said McDade. “Things are looking up, with more people having access to vaccines and [coronavirus] positivity rates decreasing. All of these things will play a factor.”

Chicago reopened more classrooms this week to elementary students, and some middle school students are set to return next week. The district has not yet set a return date for high school students. Under the district’s plan, most students who opt for hybrid learning return to classrooms two days a week, though some schools with excess capacity are allowing students in certain grades to return up to four days a week. (Two-thirds of Chicago elementary and middle school students are remaining fully remote in the third quarter, and families will have the option of returning to campus when the fourth quarter starts in April.)

This week the school district launched a public feedback form to gauge interest in starting school the week before Labor Day, on Aug. 30. Traditionally Chicago Public Schools campuses open the Tuesday after Labor Day. 

The survey said beginning the school year a week early would help minimize summer learning losses on the heels of a disrupted school year and give an instructional boost to high-school students in advance of high-stakes spring exams, such as the SAT and Advanced Placement testing.    

One wild card in the decision about school scheduling is the national timeline for childhood vaccinations. After more optimistic forecasts that vaccines for children could be available by the start of school in September, one of the country’s top infectious disease experts, Dr. Anthony Fauci, revised his prediction in recent weeks and warned that it could be the beginning of 2022 before vaccines are widely available for youngsters.

Without widely available vaccines for children, districts likely will be under pressure to continue to extend remote options and enforce social distancing rules — which, in Chicago, limit the number of children who can be present in classrooms.

In New York City, the country’s largest school district, Mayor Bill de Blasio has left open the possibility that families will again have the option of keeping their children home to learn exclusively online. 

Speaking Thursday at Miles Davis Magnet Academy in West Englewood, McDade said that district leaders continue to be seriously concerned about the impacts of the pandemic on education and that remote learning is not comparable to the in-person experience.

She said the district is close to unveiling a plan to address learning gaps. Sidestepping the term “learning loss” that has garnered scrutiny, McDade said the “unfinished learning” plan will make recommendations that schools can use. Schools ultimately will develop their own plans. 

“Our goal is to have a framework that guides schools and gives them the best in class in terms of research around this topic, as well as resources that the district will be able to provide — and yes, we will target dollars from stimulus money to address this,” she said, referring to federal coronavirus relief. 

One aspect of the plan will consider how to re-engage students who have spotty attendance or who have fallen out of communication entirely with schools. “We want to recapture our students,” she said. 

As for the more immediate question of when high school students might return to classrooms, McDade said that district officials began negotiations with union leaders Wednesday. She called the first day of talks “very promising.”

“We have a starting place,” she said, referencing the agreement reached in early February to reopen elementary and middle schools after weeks of bitter sparring. We’re not starting from a blank canvas.”

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