WILL CLASSES CLICK?

If re­mote learn­ing goes ac­cord­ing to plan, more than 300,000 Chicago stu­dents will be sit­ting be­hind com­puter screens this week

Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - NADER ISSA RE­PORTS,

Months of de­bate, anx­i­ety, prepa­ra­tion and an­tic­i­pa­tion are cul­mi­nat­ing with the kick­off Tues­day of the most un­usual school year in decades, with yel­low buses and packed back­packs re­placed with com­puter screens and a hope for a bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence than the spring.

If re­mote school goes ac­cord­ing to plan, more than 300,000 Chicago stu­dents will be sit­ting be­hind com­puter screens this week, many of them meet­ing their teach­ers vir­tu­ally for the first time.

Ques­tions re­main, how­ever, about how many chil­dren lack ac­cess to qual­ity in­ter­net, how work­ing-class fam­i­lies will han­dle hav­ing their kids at home again, and whether hours of screen time each day, es­sen­tially a full school day on­line, will be ben­e­fi­cial for stu­dents.

Mayor Lori Light­foot’s of­fice and Chicago Pub­lic Schools of­fi­cials have said ac­cess to com­put­ers is not ex­pected to be the prob­lem it was ear­lier this year, af­ter 128,000 de­vices were dis­trib­uted in the spring with an­other 17,000 handed out ahead of this school year.

Of­fi­cials also an­nounced the “Chicago Con­nected” pro­gram in June, pledg­ing to put free, high-speed in­ter­net into the homes of 100,000 CPS stu­dents who lacked re­li­able broad­band ac­cess. A lit­tle over two months later, the fam­i­lies of 24,000 kids have signed up for the pro­gram, while the rest could still be with­out qual­ity in­ter­net to start the school year.

Vir­ginia Hiltz, prin­ci­pal of Saucedo El­e­men­tary in Lit­tle Vil­lage, said she’s not wor­ried about com­puter ac­cess but has some con­cerns about in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity. She said the free in­ter­net pro­gram has helped, though, as she and her staff have part­nered with com­mu­nity groups over the past few weeks to con­tact ev­ery Saucedo fam­ily, many of whom have reg­is­tered. She’s en­cour­aged by the progress.

Aside from tech­nol­ogy, Hiltz said she feels Saucedo has done a good job plan­ning for a bet­ter re­mote learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, from learn­ing more about tech­nol­ogy to es­tab­lish­ing more ef­fi­cient com­mu­ni­ca­tion meth­ods.

Some Saucedo ed­u­ca­tors con­ducted so­cially dis­tant drive­way vis­its to briefly meet their stu­dents be­fore the start of the school year.

“We had to sup­port each other,” Hiltz said. “Peo­ple who have been teach­ers for a long time had to say, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ And maybe a sec­ond-year teacher stepped in and said, ‘I can help you.’ Be­ing able to show that vul­ner­a­bil­ity, it just brought teams closer to­gether, faster.

“I would de­scribe my at­ti­tude right now as op­ti­mistic and con­fi­dent but also pre­pared to face chal­lenges,” Hiltz said. “But isn’t that how the first week of school is any­time?”

Schools chief Jan­ice Jack­son at a news con­fer­ence Fri­day tried to re­as­sure par­ents and stu­dents that learn­ing at home — which will be in place at least through Nov. 6, the end of the first aca­demic quar­ter — will start to feel “as nor­mal as any other school ex­pe­ri­ence.” Most stu­dents will be on­line for sev­eral hours each day, with older kids spend­ing more time be­hind screens.

“As­sign­ments will be graded, at­ten­dance will be taken and stu­dents should ex­pect to be held to the same high stan­dards that they re­ceive dur­ing in-per­son in­struc­tion,” Jack­son said.

But some fam­i­lies, teach­ers and even Board of Ed­u­ca­tion mem­bers have said they would have pre­ferred an ex­pe­ri­ence tai­lored more to the dras­ti­cally al­tered con­di­tions dur­ing the pan­demic.

School board mem­ber Luisiana Me­len­dez, who spe­cial­izes in early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion, said at last month’s board meet­ing that re­search shows younger stu­dents don’t ben­e­fit from ex­tended screen time and need adults sit­ting with them to guide their vir­tual learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, which isn’t a pos­si­bil­ity for many work­ing-class fam­i­lies. “That is one of my ma­jor con­cerns with re­mote learn­ing and young chil­dren,” Me­len­dez said. “It de­mands a lot from the fam­i­lies that are al­ready stressed.”

Cas­san­dra Kac­zocha, a mother of three stu­dents at Boone El­e­men­tary in West Ridge, said she wishes there was less con­tin­u­ous com­puter time built into the day, be­cause at least one of her chil­dren strug­gles with screens as it is.

“It’s too much. It’s way too much,” Kac­zocha said. “In the spring we did a lot of pro­ject­based learn­ing that was re­ally ben­e­fi­cial for my kids and not much on­line in front of the screen. That helped me as a par­ent not hav­ing to be run­ning all over the house check­ing in to make sure kids are get­ting logged in when they’re sup­posed to be and that they’ve got the band­width that they need.”

The Chicago Teach­ers Union has been ne­go­ti­at­ing with CPS the past few months over school­ing ex­pec­ta­tions this fall, in­clud­ing screen time re­quired for teach­ers and that some school staffers, such as clerks and tech co­or­di­na­tors, are be­ing told to work in schools.

“I sense an ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of anx­i­ety, an ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of fear,” CTU Vice Pres­i­dent Stacy Davis Gates said Fri­day. “If we can get through March, April, May, June, July, Au­gust and now to see Septem­ber, we can get through this as well.”

PAT NABONG/SUN-TIMES

Staff mem­bers of Mor­gan Park High School dis­trib­ute lap­tops to stu­dents on Satur­day.

PAT NABONG/SUN-TIMES

Char­lie Cobbs and his daugh­ter Crys­tal pick up Crys­tal’s lap­top at Mor­gan Park High School in Mor­gan Park on Satur­day.

Jan­ice Jack­son

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