A cardboard cutout of Mayor Lori Lightfoot looks over teachers assistant Jennefa Krupinski as teachers set up to teach remotely outside Suder Montessori Magnet Elementary School on the Near West Side in solidarity with Chicago Public School pre-K and cluster educators who returned to the classroom today, January 11, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — In an effort to end a stalemate between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union, a group of principals is urging the district to consider a pilot program for reopening.

The Chicago Principals & Administrators Association, whose members have been working in person since March, issued a plan called Returning to an In-person Teaching Environment.

The three-step “R.I.T.E” plan was developed by the group’s leaders based on input from 377 school leaders, according to a news release.

The plan calls for:

  1. The opening of a small group of in-person pilot schools and making COVID-19 vaccinations a priority for staff of these schools.
  2. Focusing the district’s resources on ensuring the success of the pilot schools.
  3. If successful, expanding the pilot every three to four weeks as groups of schools demonstrate preparedness and readiness for in-person learning.

Fewer than 17 percent of principals and assistant principals surveyed by the group thought the district was prepared and ready to open schools. Only 28 percent of school leaders thought CPS provided sufficient reopening guidance while 22 percent of respondents thought they had adequate staff to reopen.

Group President Troy LaRaviere said “no group of educators” has more insight than principals and administrators on the best way to open schools and on the safety and efficacy of the CPS plan.

“We salute the district’s goals,” LaRaviere said. “However, their plans are not realistic or safe for most of our schools. Accordingly, we developed a more grounded and practical approach to resuming in-person learning.”

District leaders and Mayor Lori Lightfoot have said their school reopening plan — which requires teachers to return but not students, who can still learn virtually — helps disadvantaged families and students who are falling behind due to remote learning.

Fewer Kids Than Expected

In total, 77,000 of the district’s 355,000 students were initially expected to return to in-person learning this year, but turnout has been much lower. The Tribune reports 10,000 of those students have since decided to learn remotely, and of the 6,500 kids expected back earlier this month, a daily of average of just 3,189 kids actually showed up.

Principals and union members have said there’s no reason to push all teachers into classrooms when the majority of students will continue learning remotely, but Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson have been steadfast in their vow to reopen all schools Feb. 1.

“It’s still our intent to have students return on Monday,” Lightfoot said Thursday afternoon.

Earlier this week, CPS touted a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study and policy paper saying in-school learning can be relatively safe with certain precautions in place. But the Chicago Teachers Union said the study focused its research on rural students, not a large urban school district, and the district was resisting some of the safeguards the CDC recommended.

Related: As CPS, Union Battle Over School Reopening, District Cites CDC In Saying Schools Are Safe With Proper Protocols

Union leaders have vigorously fought CPS’ reopening plan, saying it harms school staff and families in communities already ravaged by the pandemic.

“We can make schools safe with a phased reopening and enhanced COVID-19 testing for members of school communities,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement Tuesday. “Parents have overwhelmingly rejected in-person learning under the current conditions. There are many options that we’ve proposed to staff classrooms where children are returning without putting every single member of the school community at increased risk — including thousands of educators with families at heightened risk from COVID.”

Many teachers have said CPS’ reopening plan puts their health at risk. During the first few days of in-person learning, two employees at McCutcheon Elementary School tested positive for coronavirus, putting eight school employees in quarantine.

As of Thursday, union leaders and the district remain deadlocked over the plan to reopen schools and the threat of a strike is on the table.

RELATED: CPS Tells Parents To Keep Students Home Again Thursday As Battle With Teachers Union Continues

A phase-in approach wouldn’t force the district to create a “one-size-fits-all” model and acknowledges that some schools are more ready to reopen than others, CPAA leaders wrote. It would also avoid a strike, they said.

“While students of color would be the beneficiaries of a successful reopening, they also will bear the brunt of the consequences of a failed one,” the union wrote. “This approach makes failure less likely. It also narrows the number of students whose lives would be upended by the instability created if reopening is unsuccessful.”

The Chicago Teachers Union waged an 11-day strike in October 2019, pushing for better pay, smaller class sizes and more special education teachers, among other issues. It was the longest strike in three decades.

Read the entire R.I.T.E. plan here.

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