COVID concerns kept these students home. Now they are no longer enrolled.

Two students are framed by a window decorated with decals. One student wears a blue face mask.
Students on the first day of school at Ombudsman Chicago South. Chicago unenrolled some families who have refused to attend school in-person, citing health risks related to COVID-19. (Lauren Miller for Chalkbeat)

On the first day of school in Chicago, Cortney Ritsema emailed her campus in the city’s Rogers Park neighborhood to say her three children would not come to school because of concerns about the delta variant and the district’s safety measures. 

At first, New Field Elementary marked Ristema’s third grader and two kindergarteners as excused absences. She logged on to review the kindergarteners’ curriculum and checked out books the third grader’s classroom was reading from the library. 

But later in the week, Ristema received a robocall notifying her that her children were now logging unexcused absences. Then she lost access to their school accounts. 

The principal eventually called to explain: After missing most of the first week, her children were no longer enrolled at the school. 

Ristema is part of a group of Chicago parents who organized under the social media hashtag #CPSSickOut to sit out the district’s return to full-time in-person instruction — a bid to force the district’s hand to offer virtual access to instruction. After they did not show up for several days, some students were dropped from campus rolls.   

The district said it is merely following a longstanding process. Any students who do not come at the start of the school year are marked “Did Not Arrive” and eventually considered “inactive.” A district spokeswoman said there are good reasons for this approach: Students don’t rack up unexcused absences — potentially sparing families a legal standoff over chronic truancy — while the school can better plan and make scheduling changes. 

But in the COVID era, that standard practice comes with a twist: While “Did Not Arrive” students are often dropped because schools can’t track down their families, these parents insist that they want to remain enrolled. 

Their situation captures a key tension for Chicago school officials: They are intensely focused on re-engaging students and families to forestall a major enrollment dip, a factor in state funding. But, citing state guidelines limiting remote learning, they also want children in the classroom, arguing a wholesale return is crucial to begin addressing the pandemic’s academic and mental health fallout.

Districts across the country are grappling with the conundrum of how to deal with families who refuse to return to in-person learning. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed this week that the district will stay in touch and continue engaging families who balk at attending in person later this month.

Chicago has stressed that “inactive” students who return to their campuses will be re-enrolled immediately, without any additional paperwork for the family, though those in selective enrollment and magnet programs that require families to navigate application processes and lotteries could lose their seats.

“Did Not Arrive”

#CPSSickOut organizers such as Ritsema said about 300 parents are participating this fall and keeping their children home — a tiny fraction in the 340,000-student district. They say they are aware of at least a dozen who were unenrolled, generally after telling their schools they were keeping students home because of health concerns. Other participating parents informed schools they were quarantining because of travel or a family illness and were marked as excused absences.

They say they have heard from more families this week whose students returned in person, but who would like virtual learning more broadly available to quarantining students, such as those who followed a last-minute district directive to keep unvaccinated children home if families traveled out of state during the Labor Day holiday. 

Earlier this week, the state’s school board gave added leeway to districts to offer remote access to quarantining students — a move some parents hope will bolster their case for more remote options.

On Wednesday, the district reported that since the start of the school year, there have been 161 confirmed COVID cases among employees and students, though educators and parents have said some cases of which they were formally notified are not yet reflected in the online tracker. In total, about 2,940 close contacts were flagged.

The week before classes started, Kate O’Rourke informed her seventh grade daughter’s neighborhood elementary school on the city’s Southwest Side that the girl would not attend in person. O’Rourke had resigned as an early childhood special education teacher in the district last spring over concerns about how it had handled reopening schools for hybrid learning. 

Her daughter is vaccinated, but with several immunocompromised family members, O’Rourke says she worried the girl could bring COVID home from school. She is also critical of the district’s decision to do away with some safety measures from last year such as stricter social distancing and a daily health screener, and to exclude vaccinated students and staff from quarantine after a school-based exposure.

The school warned her that her daughter would be unenrolled. And that’s what happened within the first few days of the school year. 

O’Rourke told a clerk that week that she wanted to keep her daughter on the rolls, but was told the only way to do that would be to send her to school.

“I want her to count as a student,” she said. “I’m crushed to think she’s been erased from the system.”

In the 1990s, the district embraced a more expeditious approach to dropping no-show students from school rolls at the start of the school year, said a former district official familiar with enrollment practices, who requested anonymity. That was in part to crack down on the practice of waiting to unenroll students who had left until after the 20th day of the school year, when enrollment helps determine campus budgets. Now, students would be marked “Did Not Arrive” on the first day of school, and then after an attempt to reach their families, cleared from the rolls.

But the former official said, amid the pandemic, “Old concepts are being applied to new realities. These parents and students are saying, ‘I did not arrive, but I am here to tell you, Principal Jones, that we’re still in the school.”

“I would call these students pushouts, because that’s what principals are doing, which we used to try to discourage,” he added.

The district has been firm on limiting virtual access to classrooms to unvaccinated students who were directed by the district or a health authority to quarantine, though the recent state board change calls for extending virtual learning to vaccinated students in quarantine as well. (A new Virtual Academy is open only to students with certain serious medical conditions.) Meanwhile, educators have spoken out about the challenges of teaching in-person and remote students simultaneously, which they say can often feel like shortchanging one or both groups of students.    

Brenna O’Brien’s family had a different experience from Ritsema and O’Rourke, illustrating that schools are still grappling with how to handle these cases. O’Brien, another member of the #CPSSickOut group, told her school ahead of the first day that her second- and fourth-graders would quarantine because of a suspected COVID exposure. The family plans to keep the children home until they are able to get vaccinated or until COVID cases in the city decrease substantially.

The school, Coonley Elementary on the city’s North Side, allowed O’Brien’s children to log on to the classroom virtually on Day 1 and meet their peers and teachers. Later that day, one student virtually joined a read-along with the class. 

She says her students have been allowed to log in at least briefly every morning, check in, and get school assignments they then do independently after logging off: “That connection is such a big boost for their social and emotional wellbeing.”

Limited recourse

Some of these families acknowledge they are in a privileged position: With a stay-at-home parent or one who can work from home, they are able to support learning away from school. 

O’Rourke, who can work from home, has started designing a homeschool curriculum for her daughter. But they argue they are also advocating for other parents who are anxiously sending their children to school but still hoping for a virtual option. O’Rourke says offering more remote access could also help preserve in-person learning for the many children who need it by allowing for more social distancing.

Ritsema, a stay-at-home mom, had felt optimistic as COVID cases plunged in early summer that her children would return to in-person learning and she would rejoin the workforce in the fall. But after the delta variant emerged, she felt uncomfortable with district changes such as dropping daily temperature checks and relaxing social distancing expectations. The idea of her children, one of whom has asthma, eating lunch indoors with other unvaccinated students filled her with anxiety.

In a letter to the school, she asked that her daughter’s absences be excused because of what the district’s truancy policy describes as “circumstances which cause reasonable concern to the parent or legal guardian for the safety or health of the student.” 

That argument did not fly. Ritsema says she was also told that her position as a parent representative on the local school council is also in jeopardy.

On Twitter, where Ritsema posted about her experience, two aldermen and the Chicago Teachers Union, which accused the district of “retaliation” against her, chimed in in support.  

Her principal offered to share homeschooling resources, but Ritsema says she plans to keep fighting the decision to unenroll her children and demanding that teachers give them school work and access to the curriculum — though she is not sure she has any recourse. 

For now, she works on reading, writing and multiplication with her third-grader daily, she said: “I’m really winging it.”

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