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CPS Plans To Reopen School Buildings For Special Education, Pre-K — But Continue Virtual Learning For Most

The district plans to phase in some students after an all-virtual start to the second quarter.

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This story was updated to reflect that Chicago will start the second quarter virtually for all students and phase in younger learners and students with disabilities. Click here for more.

CHICAGO — Chicago wants to reopen school buildings for its youngest learners and some students with special needs, with all other students sticking with virtual learning for now, Chalkbeat has learned. 

The district will start the second quarter virtually and phase in pre-kindergarten students and students in special education “cluster” programs five days a week later in the second quarter, it said Friday morning.

Reports of the plan began to surface Thursday after Chicago Public Schools officials briefed school leaders. District officials did not immediately comment but sent details Friday morning in an email.

Additional grades could be added as early as January.

The proposal comes as the city grapples with a fall uptick in COVID-19 cases, with the city’s 7-day average positivity rate at 4.5 percent. But at the same time, district leaders have said virtual instruction has been a poor substitute for in-person learning for young learners and students with disabilities. They also have expressed concern about national data showing marked enrollment losses for public schools in the early grades, particularly kindergarten. 

District officials have said they would survey special education and pre-K families next week and gauge their comfort level with a return to school buildings before making a final decision closer to the start of the second quarter on Nov. 9. They have vowed to preserve the option of continuing to learn fully online for families. 

The teachers union has been voicing skepticism about any effort to return to school buildings until a thorough safety plan is in place. The union on Thursday called the district’s reported plan “dangerous” and “irresponsible,” saying that students in “cluster” programs — who receive services in small groups separately from their peers — can be some of the district’s most medically vulnerable.

The union has held up a recent arbitrator’s ruling that the district should allow clerks to work from home as evidence that Chicago has not made a convincing case for the safety of its facilities. The arbitrator did not rule on the overall safety of school buildings but said that given the inherent risks the pandemic poses, it makes sense for the district to allow clerks to perform duties that don’t require their presence in schools from their homes. That’s a ruling the district has called “deeply flawed” and is appealing.

Meanwhile, some districts in the Chicago suburbs and elsewhere in the country that started the school year virtually are gearing up for a return to brick-and-mortar instruction. Districts such as Batavia have started bringing students back into school buildings, as parents in a slew of suburbs have come out to protest against remote learning. 

Miami-Dade, the country’s fourth-largest district, announced plans to reopen its schools to students this month. In Washington, D.C., officials said this week they will bring some high-needs elementary students back for in-person instruction in early November, while all students in those grades will have the option of studying virtually from school buildings.

In Philadelphia, district officials announced earlier this week that they would bring back students in pre-kindergarten to second grade in late November for two days a week, followed in January by students with special needs, ninth graders, and students in career and technical education programs. Other students — the majority of the school district — have no tentative return date.

However, officials in some districts, such as Denver, that started bringing back students in the earliest grades are watching closely a spike in COVID-19 infections and have said they will delay the return to school buildings for middle and high school students.

New York City started the school year in September with a blended model similar to what Chicago had envisioned. But last minute changes and miscommunication with parents made for a sometimes chaotic reopening. Recently, that district announced it would close about 300 public and private schools in parts of the city experiencing a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases.

In Chicago, as in other cities across the country, the teachers union has emerged as a sharp critic of reopening plans. It has deemed measures the district took last summer in hopes of reopening schools — from hiring additional custodians to providing touchless thermometers for daily temperature checks — insufficient and has called for a districtwide testing and contact tracing protocol.

Another complicating factor: The district has said it’s working to assess air quality and flow in hundreds of school buildings. It did not say when this process began or how long it might take. But it pledged to make its findings public and to make any needed repairs to malfunctioning equipment. That announcement came shortly after the Centers for Disease Control released new school ventilation guidelines last month, validating the concerns of experts who have rung alarms about the risk of transmission in confined, poorly ventilated classrooms.   

Chicago had previously pitched a plan to provide in-person physical therapy, hearing and vision screenings and other services to some special education students in school buildings. The union opposed that plan too.

Julie Nesbitt, the parent of a 15-year-old with special needs, said she needed more concrete information about what the district would do to keep her child safe. “I can honestly see both sides of this issue. On one hand, some children with disabilities really need in-person learning. On the other hand, teachers, students, and families have to be safe. For me the core issue is: Do we trust CPS?”

“For years, families and teachers have asked and demanded clean schools, smaller class sizes, and updated facilities,” she added, “but CPS has not responded. Those issues haven’t really changed, but now it’s even more serious.”

Kalaveeta Mitchell, a parent of two teenagers with disabilities, said she was fearful of sending her daughter back to campus (her son attends school outside the district) and upset that Chicago had not surveyed parents before floating a plan. “If you are talking about putting together a plan for special education students, you need the input of their parents, and the teachers who work with these students — especially special education teachers and all of the related service providers. Each student is different. Any plan you are putting together is not going to work for every student.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot had said previously that the track record of the city’s Catholic schools would inform the district’s decisions. The Archdiocese of Chicago, the state’s largest private school operator with 70,000 students, reopened its campuses in late August, most of them with fully in-person instruction.

Archdiocese officials say their reopening has gone smoothly thanks to significant safety measures, including contact tracing, social distancing, and keeping students in “cohorts” throughout the day. They say schools have seen only one case of suspected in-school transmission and have maintained a positivity rate of less than 1%. However, they have not released the number of COVID-19 cases among students and school employees or how many times schools have had to quarantine cohorts.

Cassie Walker Burke contributed reporting.

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