Teachers and parents pushed back against the district’s plan to have most kids in school for two days per week.

By Kelly Bauer

CHICAGO — The city’s public schools will start the year Sept. 8 with all kids taking online, remote classes, officials announced Wednesday, reversing a previous decision to begin with some in-class instruction.

The move comes after weeks of pushback from teachers, parents and community members, who worried the district’s plan — to have a hybrid model where most kids would spend at least a few days in school — would expose children, families and faculty to coronavirus.

CPS said it made the decision amid an uptick in cases and based on feedback from parents, many of whom said they don’t feel ready to send their children back to school.

The decision was made based on the “evolving public health situation and feedback that we’ve received, notably from parents and faculty,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said during the press conference. “Make no mistake: Here in Chicago we are in a better place than most other areas in the country and in the surrounding area; but the fact of the matter is, we are seeing an increase in cases.

“Combined with the trends we’re seeing, the decision to start remotely makes sense for a district of CPS’ size and diversity.”

The second quarter begins Nov. 9. School officials said they will work with the Chicago Department of Public Health to determine if in-class instruction can start then.

In the meantime, the city will continue to work on its “remote learning platform,” Lightfoot said.

Students will have a full day of learning, getting a mix of real-time instruction from teachers, working remotely with small groups of students and doing activities on their own.

Teachers will be available for a full day of school, just as they would be for in-person classes, said CPS CEO Janice Jackson.

Assignments will be graded and students will receive letter grades. Schools will also check attendance and will reach out to kids who aren’t participating in remote learning.

The district is still finalizing its plans and will send a framework to parents in coming days, officials said. CPS is also working on how to best help students with special needs or those learning English.

The district’s sports teams are no longer practicing, and the district is waiting for guidance from state sports groups, Jackson said.

Teachers and principals will be trained on the district’s new expectations as students do remote learning, officials said, and principals will be taught how to monitor and manage staff remotely to ensure teachers and the school community are held accountable.

Still, Jackson said she’s deeply worried about kids who live in unsafe environments and who rely on school for stability and encouragement.

CPS will continue to provide free meals to students for as long as that service is needed, Jackson said, and the district is working on providing child care options to parents who need to return to work and can’t afford to stay home with their children.

The district will also continue to send electronic devices, like tablets and laptops, to students in need and to try to provide them with free internet.

Rising Cases

CPS originally proposed having most kids spend two days in school and three days learning at home. The district planned to create rules — like having everyone wear masks and having kids spend all their classes in one room with the same group of students — to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

But even when announcing that plan in July, officials said there would undoubtedly be coronavirus outbreaks.

And since then, Chicago has seen a growing number of new coronavirus cases, with officials saying the virus is making a resurgence throughout Illinois.

Concerned, the Chicago Teachers Union pushed for all-remote learning and even planned to call a meeting to discuss a potential strike. Teaches held car caravans and rallies in protest of the plan.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said the city’s outlook for coronavirus was rosier a month ago, when officials first proposed the hybrid learning model.

Four to five weeks ago, the city was regularly seeing fewer than 200 new cases of coronavirus per day. But as of Wednesday, Chicago is seeing an average of 277 new cases per day, with some days seeing more than 400 new cases reported.

The city’s positivity rate has risen 1 percentage point to 4.8 percent, as well, Arwady said.

“The fact that over the last four to five weeks we’ve added between 80 and 100 cases and not seen signs of that turning around makes us concerned as we’re planning ahead for a complicated school district like CPS,” Arwady said. “We need to make these decisions a month in advance, and if we’ve added 80 to 100 cases over the last month without seeing turnaround, we very easily could add that many or more in the month ahead.”

The Chicago Department of Public Health still supports CPS’ hybrid plan, Arwady said, but the rising number of cases her — coupled with the concerns of parents and faculty — led to the city deciding to go all-remote at the start of the school year.

Still, Arwady said she and other city officials hope coronavirus numbers drop here and CPS can bring back its hybrid plan in November.

CPS has not seen significant spread of coronavirus in settings where children gather, like day care and camp, Arwady said.

“We will see what the data looks like. We will see what the feedback is from parents and teachers and staff …,” Arwady said. “The CPS plan has been very well thought-out, and I am hopeful, as I hope you all are, as well, that if we are in a place where it is safe to move a head, we have the public confidence to do so, we will be able to make that decision.”

Parents can use the months of remote learning to teach their kids how to be safe and prevent spreading coronavirus, Arwady said. Experts from her department will continue to see how other school districts that have reopened are working so they can bring those lessons to Chicago, as well.

And Arwady urged everyone to take individual steps to bring down the rate of transmission in Chicago. People can do that by wearing face coverings in public, practicing social distancing and washing their hands, she said.

CPS serves 355,000 students in more than 600 schools, according to the district.