Chicago releases more details about ‘phased-in’ school reopening plan 

Chicago releases more details about ‘phased-in’ school reopening plan 

Chicago Public Schools released initial details of its reopening plans Friday, formally announcing it will stick with remote learning for its second quarter but will attempt a phased school building reopening starting with pre-kindergarten and some special education students.
The decision, which district leaders said was informed in part by troubling enrollment and attendance numbers just made public, already is provoking strong opposition from the city’s powerful teachers union.
Similar to national trends, the district has seen enrollment dip markedly this fall, with the numbers of 3- and 4-year-old pre-kindergartners down by 34% — and down 44% among Black students. Meanwhile, the district said engagement among Black and Latino students remains significantly lower than among their peers.
With 14,500 fewer students compared to last year — a 4% drop officials said was driven largely by fewer pre-K students — Chicago reported the sharpest enrollment decline in two decades. District officials said they would survey families with students in preschool and special education “cluster” programs next week about their interest in returning to five days of in-person instruction.
They said they will continue to watch public health data before making a final decision closer to the start of the quarter Nov. 9, noting that while COVID-19 case numbers have gone up, the city’s test positivity rate of just below 5% remains within a range the Centers for Disease Control consider a lower risk for school transmission. They pointed to data that shows that Chicago students who returned to private school classrooms this fall have lower rates of COVID than other children in the city.
The district will aim to bring additional grades back to school buildings as early as January.
“We have a moral imperative to do everything in our power to safely open our schools for our youngest and most vulnerable learners who cannot be served well enough by any form of remote learning,” school chiefs Janice Jackson said in a statement.
The district said it is taking “stringent health and safety measures,” including contract tracing, access to free rapid COVID-19 testing, and a new protocol to notify the public of confirmed coronavirus cases at schools.
The district’s teachers union, however, was swift to denounce the district’s intent to reopen school buildings, calling it “dangerous” and “irresponsible.” At a Friday morning press conference, union leaders criticized the district for not engaging with teachers and families more closely.
“You cannot put a plan together in the dark of the night that excludes our parents, that excludes our teachers, that excludes our union,” said union vice president Stacy Davis Gates. “What we need in this moment is more engagement, more collaboration.”
The union’s attorney, Thad Goodchild, questioned the legality of the district’s reopening process because of its lack of engagement with the union, and urged officials to work with educators.
“It does not have to be like this,” Goodchild said.
The district has held that vulnerable learners must be prioritized for in-person learning, but the union said these students also have the highest rates of asthma and other health concerns that make them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.
District leaders said they are consulting closely with the city’s health department and other public health officials. The city’s public health commissioner, Allison Arwady, pointed to early national data showing low rates of COVID-19 spread in schools, easing fears that they would be sites of significant virus transmission.
“On the other hand, as a pediatrician I’m very concerned about the classroom time children are missing and the negative impact that can have on their development, particularly those already facing challenges,” said Arwady.
Other safety measures the district said it would take are: grouping students in “pods” throughout the day to help with social distancing, requiring daily temperature checks, hiring 400 additional custodians, and installing sneeze guards.
The district, which said last month that it’s assessing the ventilation systems in all its buildings, said it is spending $65 million this year to upgrade and repair these systems. Officials vowed to make sure “no student is in a classroom that does not have proper ventilation” though it is unclear when the assessment process and upgrades will be completed.
Union officials said Friday they estimated fully updating schools’ ventilation systems would cost significantly more — and they said their concerns about safety remain.
Linda Perales, a special education teacher at Corkery Elementary in Little Village, said her in-person classroom for high-needs students usually hosted five adults and 12 students. “Working with students with such high needs makes it impossible to socially distance,” Perales said at Friday’s press conference.
Union leaders said they were also concerned about how the district would keep them informed of COVID-19 cases in schools, and planned to launch their own COVID-19 tracker to share information on COVID-19 cases reports directly from union members.
As news of the reopening plan leaked Thursday, some parents said they were taken aback by the lack of a survey or some other way of engaging families in the district’s decision-making around reopening.
The parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Schools said in a statement Friday that parents have many questions, concerns, and ideas about how to improve remote learning and approach reopening schools. But the district has not spelled out any plan or process to engage with them.
“There is a huge lack of trust between families and CPS,” the group said. “The absence of family engagement on schooling during a pandemic is a failure on the part of our district.”

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