NORTH LAWNDALE — While a battle between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union stopped in-person classes for most of the city’s students, one West Side charter school was able to operate as normal thanks to extensive precautions, planning and frequent communication with parents.
North Lawndale College Prep, split between campuses at 1615 S. Christiana Ave. and 1313 S. Sacramento Drive., has continued in-person classes since returning from winter break despite the latest surge in COVID-19 cases. Its strategy resembles some of the key demands union leaders had proposed to safely return students to classrooms.
The school, which enrolls just less than 800 students, has made masks, testing and vaccines widely available and easy to access, parents said, and administrators have been strict about social distancing, school scheduling to avoid overcrowding and proper mask wearing.
In-person learning is the priority, but the school has protocols to flip to virtual learning on a limited basis if there are outbreaks.
Because it’s a charter school, North Lawndale’s COVID-19 cases, quarantines and isolations are not included in CPS data. Not all parents are on board with in-person learning, but some parents said they’ve been able to avoid major problems, and the school’s approach has helped people feel safer.
“We knew keeping kids home and doing remote learning was not good for kids,” parent Karen Castleberry said. “We have to continue to live our lives and educate students. … We’re years into this pandemic. We have to be able to devise some kind of plan … so parents can be prepared for this.”
North Lawndale College Prep’s first line of defense is a rigorous mask policy, Director of Academics Kieran Palmer-Klein said. The school makes it easy for students to comply by providing N-95 masks each day, Palmer-Klein said.
The school has been “really on top of making sure both adults and kids are wearing their N-95 masks properly,” Palmer-Klein said.
The second major component is social distancing. Administrators have minimized contact between students as they move through the school by switching to a block schedule that halves the number of times students must transition between classes through busy hallways. To further reduce contact, students move between classes on an alternating schedule so the halls are never too crowded.
“I like how they’re spacing the classes and at the same time making sure the kids get their learning time in,” said Lorenzia Anderson, whose son attends the school.
Students are also dismissed from school early so administrators could eliminate the lunch period. Instead of having congregate lunchtime, students pick up their lunch just before leaving the school so they don’t have to remove their masks to eat around others.
By identifying the times when students are most likely to remove their masks or come into close contact with someone who may be infected, North Lawndale College Prep has significantly reduced the risk of in-school learning, Palmer-Klein said.
“When we did have to do contact tracing, where did the vast majority of kids come in contact with somebody else? In the hallways or at lunch,” Palmer-Klein said.
The school also works with Lawndale Christian Health Center to make it easy for families to get tested, and it offers weekly, on-site vaccinations.
North Lawndale College Prep can switch to virtual learning when there is a serious outbreak. But rather than closing the entire school, administrators send students into isolation by grade level since they’ve been able to limit schoolwide exposure.
“We’ve only had to push that button a couple times. Our goal is to keep as many kids as humanly possible in school. We know that’s where kids are most successful,” Palmer-Klein said.
The most important element of the plan for Wilonda Cannon, a mom to a North Lawndale College Prep senior who also sits on the school’s board, is the school is prepared to adapt to changing circumstances and communicate openly with parents, she said.
“If it’s one thing that COVID taught us, it’s that we don’t have a choice but to be nimble,” Cannon said. “People still have to live, students still have to learn, and we all still have to be safe.”
Remote learning is one tool in administrator’s toolbox for keeping kids safe when necessary, Cannon said. But with other protocols in place, remote learning only has to be a last resort since “our children suffered in the online environment,” she said.
“They came up with a plan and they tested it. They’re a good model of what can happen,” Cannon said. “We need to have a better way of pivoting very quickly so if we need to do remote learning, we can do that.”
Not all families are comfortable with in-person classes during the latest spike in cases. Ethel Adams, whose granddaughter goes to North Lawndale College Prep, thinks schools should wait out the worst of the surge before resuming classes.
“Kids need an education. But what do they need most: their education or their life?” she said.
The school surveyed teachers and parents to design a plan going into the school year, Palmer-Klein said. Over winter break, administrators sent out another survey to gather feedback, and they tweaked their plan to adjust for the rapidly changing conditions.
Not all teachers and parents agreed with the school’s decision to stay open, Palmer-Klein said. But “the vast majority” believed the school’s nimble strategy was the best path forward, he said.
This isn’t the first time North Lawndale has adjusted its educational model during the pandemic. The school also implemented a hybrid model to offer in-person classes to support students and families of essential workers for whom all-remote learning wasn’t feasible.
The school’s open communication with families has made it easier for parents to trust the safety plan and be prepared for any adjustments, Cannon said.
“I knew when my son got off break he would be getting out of school earlier. All of the changes that were happening, it wasn’t in the dark,” Cannon said.
The district’s latest conflict with the teacher’s union underscores how important it is to set realistic expectations and communicate with parents, Castleberry said.
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