On Friday, July 17, CPS announced tentative plans for schools to reopen in the Fall. Much like the reopening of businesses, CPS hopes to phase in student attendance with a system that includes part-time virtual attendance, and in-person attendance at least two days per week. Families do have the option to opt-out of in-person attendance for any reason, taking advantage of full-time virtual learning. Still, English Language Learners and students with special needs will have the option to attend in-person instruction up to four days per week, depending on need. Eleventh and Twelfth-grade students will not report to classes at all. For many, this seems to be an ideal system that allows families to transition back into their jobs with very low risk. Still, for others, especially educators, any attempt to conduct in-person learning feels like a death wish.
Black and brown children constitute over 80% of CPS students, and COVID-19 cases have most impacted their communities. Any number of students in such outdated and poorly resourced buildings is predicted to result in an outbreak. Even if more families decided to opt-out of in-person instruction, the ELL and SPED population constitutes approximately 30%-35% of all learners. These students, combined with any number of students from families of essential workers, would mean that as many as 50% of students would take advantage of in-person learning. While these numbers seem ideal for social distancing protocols and offer smaller class sizes and more effective learning, teachers recognize this as a threat to their health, mental well-being, and for many, their income.
One middle school SPED teacher reports, “any high-risk teachers to those who have high-risk family members have to apply for a leave of absence.” While the terms of this leave of absence remain unclear, it appears that this leave will be without pay. Teachers who can work in person will be expected to work in the building four days per week, increasing their exposure to the virus. Black and brown staff make up nearly 60% of all CPS workers, and 41% of teachers are African American or Hispanic. While the learning pods would cut class sizes to an ideal number of students per staff member, when there is significantly less staff to work with, they will struggle to receive the adequate support needed to function in this new system. Teachers and staff who choose not to apply for the leave of absence will be overworked with the load of those unable to work. It is a recipe for an educational experience worse than what the city experienced in the wake of the pandemic.
Ashley Payne, an attorney and social commentator suggests seeking alternative solutions for education as a whole. “Rather than rush towards traditional school settings, now is the time to be innovative and inclusive in a way that schools have not been previously,” says Payne. “Now is the time to seek out tech innovations that make learning more accessible and provide resources to fill in the gaps for families in vulnerable communities.” Teachers are hoping families will be provided with better support in the form of technical training and supply for families to increase virtual learning effectiveness. Ultimately, Chicago families are hoping for a better solution to educating children safely and effectively.