Light­foot says wors­en­ing COVID con­di­tions, par­ent con­cerns drove de­ci­sion

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY NADER ISSA AND FRAN SPIELMAN Staff Re­porters

Mayor Lori Light­foot said she bowed to the sci­ence, not the teach­ers union, in abruptly shift­ing Chicago Pub­lic Schools to a re­mote learn­ing plan for the fall that of­fi­cials say will have far more struc­ture and ac­count­abil­ity than in the spring.

The mayor cited wors­en­ing pub­lic health con­di­tions and par­ent con­cerns about in­per­son school­ing Wed­nes­day in back­ing off a pro­posal to re­turn to class­rooms next month.

To im­prove the ex­pe­ri­ence for par­ents and stu­dents, schools chief Jan­ice Jack­son promised full-day live on­line in­struc­tion by all teach­ers five days a week and some small group on­line learn­ing.

The city will hold re­mote classes for CPS’ 300,000 stu­dents at non-char­ter schools be­gin­ning Sept. 8, the pre­vi­ously sched­uled start to the school year, through at least the end of the first quar­ter, Nov. 6. Of­fi­cials said they hope the virus can be suf­fi­ciently con­tained by that time to im­ple­ment the two-days-a-week hy­brid learn­ing plan they had been tout­ing up to this point.

De­tails of the new at-home model will be re­leased in the com­ing days, Jack­son said, with the goal of un­veil­ing a more com­pre­hen­sive plan than the makeshift one used in the spring when the pan­demic forced sur­prise school clo­sures.

Still, some of the same chal­lenges re­main from the spring. Last month, Light­foot un­veiled a $50 mil­lion “Chicago Con­nected” plan to pro­vide free high-speed in­ter­net ser­vice to 100,000 CPS stu­dents over the next four years, cour­tesy of Illi­nois’ rich­est man and some of Chicago’s big­gest phi­lan­thropies. But Jack­son didn’t an­swer how many stu­dents had al­ready signed up when asked Wed­nes­day at a news con­fer­ence with Light­foot and Chicago De­part­ment of Pub­lic Health Com­mis­sioner Dr. Al­li­son Ar­wady.

“I can say con­fi­dently that is not an is­sue for us,” Jack­son said of pro­vid­ing lap­tops, an­other ma­jor ob­sta­cle in the spring. “We will pro­vide them with the de­vices. We’re work­ing on the in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity. Now, it’s time to start talk­ing about what teach­ers do for kids ev­ery sin­gle day and what we need par­ents to do to make sure they’re set up to learn.”

The schools chief said the move to re­mote learn­ing is not ideal or what she was hop­ing for, and that “in a per­fect world, stu­dents would be in school more, not less.”

“Stu­dents who have been left out, stu­dents who come from eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds, I am ex­tremely con­cerned about what this means for them,” Jack­son said. “We are do­ing ev­ery­thing we can to try to mit­i­gate any ad­verse ef­fects to kids hav­ing to be ed­u­cated in this way.’’

The abrupt change led to a shift in tone from Ar­wady, the health com­mis­sioner, who

just 24 hours ear­lier had as­sured re­porters that the hy­brid plan for part-time in-per­son in­struc­tion was per­fectly safe.

Ar­wady on Wed­nes­day ac­knowl­edged clo­sures were needed after a rapid in­crease in cases from con­sis­tently be­low an av­er­age of 200 new cases a day a month ago to al­most 280 to­day and still ris­ing, and a quick in­crease of the pos­i­tiv­ity rate from 3.8% last month to 4.8% to­day.

“Given the di­rec­tion that things are going and the need to plan, that’s why the de­ci­sion was made,” the com­mis­sioner said.

Only 1 in 5 par­ents of color would send kids to school

Along with the an­nounce­ment of a move to re­mote learn­ing, CPS re­leased sur­vey re­sults from 68,000 par­ents on their pref­er­ences for the fall.

Of more than 37,000 Black and Latino par­ents who re­sponded, only about 20% said they would send their kids to school next month. White par­ents, 21,000 of whom re­sponded, were much less con­cerned about the virus, with about 50% say­ing they’d send their chil­dren to school.

Across all races, par­ents of high school stu­dents were a bit more open to in-per­son in­struc­tion than el­e­men­tary school par­ents. A lit­tle less than a third of all par­ents sur­veyed said they still weren’t sure if they’d want their kids back in class­rooms.

“When we an­nounced the po­ten­tial for a hy­brid model some weeks ago, we were in a very dif­fer­ent place in the arc of the pan­demic,” the mayor said. “Peo­ple are fear­ful. And they are con­cerned.

“While we will be start­ing the fall re­motely, we need to en­sure that we can as closely repli­cate that in-per­son con­tacts with teach­ers and other staff as closely as pos­si­ble,” Light­foot said. “So, there will be dif­fer­ent mea­sures put in place to make sure that there’s a level of ac­count­abil­ity to make sure that our chil­dren are ac­tu­ally con­nected up with learn­ing.”

When re­mote learn­ing starts next month, Jack­son said prin­ci­pals will be more closely ob­serv­ing teach­ers to keep classes on track. All schools will be ex­pected to use Google plat­forms on a daily ba­sis, in­clud­ing Google Class­room and Google Meet. Schools will also be al­lowed to use dif­fer­ent plat­forms for some ex­er­cises — many ed­u­ca­tors and par­ents have said there are more ap­pro­pri­ate tools for younger el­e­men­tary stu­dents — as long as at­ten­dance is logged through Google and live in­struc­tion is done on Google Meet.

The Chicago Teach­ers Union of­fered tongue-in-cheek praise of the move to re­mote learn­ing Wed­nes­day after weeks of in­creas­ing scru­tiny on CPS’ hy­brid plan. A state­ment from union pres­i­dent Jesse Sharkey started with a “con­grat­u­la­tions to the mayor for be­ing will­ing to lis­ten to the con­cerns of fam­i­lies, ed­u­ca­tors, com­mu­nity groups and health pro­fes­sion­als.”

“CPS’ re­mote learn­ing plan must vastly im­prove on stu­dent and fam­ily ex­pe­ri­ences from the spring, and ex­perts on the ground — our mem­bers — must be equal part­ners with the district in craft­ing those re­mote learn­ing plans,” Sharkey said.

‘Not an easy de­ci­sion’

Light­foot said the de­ci­sion to keep kids home had lit­tle to do with the CTU’s pub­lic at­tacks and threats to strike. But the last thing the mayor needed was an­other walk­out by Chicago teach­ers as she grapples with soar­ing homi­cides, a trou­bling rise in coro­n­avirus cases and a $700 mil­lion bud­get short­fall.

On Wed­nes­day, the mayor was asked whether her abrupt pivot to re­mote learn­ing for the fall was a re­sponse to pres­sure from the Chicago Teach­ers Union.

“The an­swer is, ‘No.’ As we have now re­peat­edly said about ev­ery de­ci­sion that we’ve made in the con­text of this pan­demic, we have to be guided by the sci­ence. Pe­riod,” the mayor said.

Light­foot ac­knowl­edged this was “not an easy de­ci­sion to make.” But none of the de­ci­sions she has been forced to make dur­ing the coro­n­avirus pan­demic has been easy.

“When I think par­tic­u­larly about our youngest learn­ers — our pre-K, kinder­garten, one through three grades — those are chil­dren that re­ally ben­e­fit enor­mously from in-per­son in­struc­tion,” she said.

Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), the Light­foot ally who chairs the City Coun­cil’s Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee, said the mayor made the right call at the right time — with a month to go be­fore the first day of school.

“The way that the num­bers are trend­ing and par­ents be­ing a lit­tle ap­pre­hen­sive about send­ing their chil­dren to school makes for a big rea­son to reeval­u­ate the plan and think about what are our next steps,” Scott said Wed­nes­day. “It’s bet­ter to be safer than sorry.”

Asked whether Light­foot acted to avoid an­other con­fronta­tion with the Chicago Teach­ers Union, Scott said: “No­body wants a teach­ers strike.”


An empty class­room at Peter A. Rein­berg El­e­men­tary School.


Mayor Lori Light­foot speaks Wed­nes­day about CPS’ plans for re­mote learn­ing in the fall.

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