Chicago promises to ‘improve’ virtual learning as it plans for all-remote start

Chicago promises to ‘improve’ virtual learning as it plans for all-remote start

August 8, 2020 0 By Yana Kunichoff and Cassie Walker Burke, Chalkbeat Chicago

By Yana Kunichoff and Cassie Walker Burke, Chalkbeat Chicago

Chicago promises to ‘improve’ virtual learning as it plans for all-remote start was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here:

Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson announces the district’s reversal on Wednesday, Aug. 5.

In a somber announcement, Chicago Public Schools said Wednesday that it will start the school year remotely as COVID-19 cases rise and as district surveys reveal that the vast majority of Black and Latino parents aren’t comfortable sending children back into school buildings.

The district said the first quarter will be all-remote and that the aim will be to move toward a hybrid model with some in-person learning by the start of the second quarter on Nov. 9.

“We’ve made this decision based on public health guidance and what we’ve heard from CPS families,” said Mayor Lori Lightfoot during a press conference Wednesday.

Lightfoot dismissed the notion that pressure from the city’s teachers union factored into the decision. “The answer is no,” she said. “As we have now repeatedly said, every decision that we’ve made is in the context of this pandemic… When we announced the potential for a hybrid model, some weeks ago, we were in a very different place.”

The union had threatened to strike over the issue.

Chicago is the latest large school district to announce an all-remote start. Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest school district, and Miami-Dade, the fourth-largest, have announced plans to start the year remotely. New York City, the largest school district in the country with more than 1 million students, still plans for students to return to school for some in-person learning a few days a week.

The city said the reversal comes after a troubling uptick in the average daily case rate. A month ago, the city averaged fewer than 200 new cases a day, said Allison Arwady, Chicago’s public health commissioner. But in the past two weeks, that number has significantly increased. “We’ve had a number of individual days where the city was pushing toward 400 cases (a day),” she said.

Arwady added that officials wanted to make a decision in time to give officials weeks to plan the shift. “This will give us the opportunity to learn from other school districts that have been able to move ahead with in-person learning,” she said.

According to the district, as of Aug. 1, 41% of elementary school parents and 38% of high school parents told the district that they did not feel comfortable with their children returning to school. Of Black and Latino families, only 20% said they would plan to send their children to school, according to district figures.

The announcement of remote learning comes only days before the school district’s deadline for parents to decide whether to enroll their children in hybrid or remote classes for the fall.

“In a perfect world, students would be in classrooms more, not less. But unfortunately that is not where we find ourselves today,” schools chief Janice Jackson said at the press conference Wednesday morning.

She said the district will improve on the remote learning experience for students who learn at home — which some critics said was uneven and left behind students with little internet access or family support — where they will be engaged for the full school day through a mix of live instruction and independent work.

Improving remote learning

Now attention will turn to exactly how Chicago plans to improve that experience. Initial data released by the district showed that Black and Latino children were more likely to receive “incompletes” during the pandemic, and the district estimated this spring that more than 2,000 students had fallen out of touch with schools in the first weeks of remote learning, before revising its methodology to count closer to 600 students missing.

Even as the school district has distributed more than 110,000 devices to date, one of the most challenging problems during the coronavirus pandemic has been lagging broadband access, particularly in some predominantly Black neighborhoods on the city’s West Side. Soon after schools closed, a research report said one in five Chicago students lacked broadband access at home, making it difficult to participate in remote learning.

In late June, after school had ended for spring, Chicago announced a new broadband plan that would provide free internet access for up to 100,000 qualifying students. Last week the district said it was enlisting community organizations to help recruit families but has not been able to provide specific numbers of how many people have signed up so far.

Jackson said Wednesday that the school district had learned a lot from its first months of remote learning. And while “we know that remote learning cannot fully replace a traditional classroom experience,” Jackson said, “we have drawn on a lot of lessons from this past in order to improve remote learning.”

She stressed that the district will implement more traditional “checks and balances” this fall: Schools will transition back to their previous grading system, with letter grades, and principals will restart teacher evaluations — a process that had been suspended in the spring. “Teachers will be expected to be at work for the full time they would be working in a school setting,” she said, adding that the district will allow educators to teach from their classrooms if they need.  Teachers who are also parents have expressed concern about juggling both teaching and childcare responsibilities, a dilemma facing working families across the city.

“While we heard from people that they were concerned about safety, we also heard concerns that people were concerned about inequities in education and what was going to happen to their children,” Jackson said Wednesday. “My biggest concern as an educator is to make sure we don’t see a widening of the gap that already exists between the haves and have-nots.”

She also pledged that the district will pay close attention to the needs of special education students, some of whom were slated for full-time schooling under the hybrid model, by releasing more detailed guidance for one-on-one support and small group instruction.

With only a month to develop an all-remote learning plan, Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the union, said that the district must make sure that schools are fully equipped for virtual learning. “Based on the discussions that we have had with Mayor Lightfoot’s team, we are not far enough,” Gates said.

Other supports for families

With countless families across the city now facing fall juggling full-time childcare and work obligations, Lightfoot said Wednesday that the city was “currently working” on a child care plan, particularly for parents unable to work from home.

“We know some parents simply can’t afford to stay home — they don’t have that luxury,” she said. “In some instances, it’s going to involve providing options for them outside their home. We recognize that.”

As for whether the district would reopen some school buildings as safe havens under the watchful eye of administrators, as it did during the 11-day teachers’ strike last fall, Lightfoot said  the city was “looking at a range of options.”

Chicago will continue to distribute free meals across hundreds of schools for as long as needed, said Jackson. She said last week that Chicago schools had distributed more than 15 million meals so far.

“There are a host of things that I’m concerned about,” the schools chief said Wednesday, “but I think the plan that we’ve put in place is the safest plan at this time. But again, we remain committed to getting students back into schools as soon as possible.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.