Hundreds of messages from parents and educators flooded in as soon as the Chicago Public Schools’ first fall reopening feedback meeting Monday opened up to the audience for questions — many doubting the district’s safety protocols and wanting more detail for what happens when someone in school tests positive for COVID-19.
In response to many of the concerns, CPS officials repeatedly highlighted the district’s proposal to split students into “pods” of 15 to minimize contact with other classmates.
CPS CEO Janice Jackson said coronavirus will likely be a concern “not just for a few months until a magical vaccination appears” but for the next year-and-a-half to two years.
“Even with what we know about COVID and the risk being minimal for children, the thought of one child getting it freaks everyone out, so we want to make sure people understand we take that seriously,” Jackson said. “But I think the point to underscore here is we have to learn how to live with COVID, period, whether we’re talking about schools, going to the grocery store, doing the most mundane things or recreational things.”
As concerns over ventilation, cleaning and PPE continued to pour in, a visibly frustrated Jackson again said that the district’s hybrid plan will have to be implemented at some point, even if that is not when the school year starts on Sept. 8. She and CPS officials emphasized the district will only reopen if they believe it is safe to do so.
“All of us know that it’s not safe in our environment and that COVID is a risk,” Jackson said. “But we do know a heck of a lot more today than we did back in March about how to do that safely and that’s what we’re talking about today. … You can’t talk about and expect perfection in the school setting when people are still doing things outside of the school setting.”
Monday’s session was the first in a series of five feedback meetings, some in English and some in Spanish, to seek community input on the district’s hybrid reopening proposal for the fall, which calls for students to spend two days receiving in-person instruction and the rest through virtual or live online classes. Jackson said the majority of those tuning in to the feedback meeting were CPS parents, according to a poll filled out by attendees at the beginning of the virtual feedback meeting. Teachers, principals and other staff also listened in.
About 40% of the meeting’s approximately 1,500 attendees not comfortable with the draft plan, according to the poll. As seen in the poll, the meeting included representation from all across the city, Jackson said.
CPS has also released a survey, which closes July 31, to gather responses on the draft proposal. Jackson said the survey has seen responses from about 60,000 parents, more than 10,000 staff, more than 6,000 students and about 4,000 other community members.
After hearing input, Jackson said the district plans to release an updated plan in early August.
Many in the chat wanted to know how schools will respond when someone tests positive for the virus.
“This is where the pod becomes so important,” said CPS Chief Health Officer Kenneth Fox. The infected individual would report the case through a specific channel in CPS, and everyone in the affected pod would then quarantine for 14 days, Fox said.
“We may have to close a pod. We might have to close two pods,” Fox said. “But the good thing is that by controlling who interacts with whom, we know who the direct contacts could be, and we know in a targeted way what pod to shut down.”
CPS’s proposed a hybrid format for the fall two weeks ago, and it drew immediate criticism from the Chicago Teachers Union, which has argued that remote classes must continue for the health and safety of teachers, staff and students.
Jackson emphasized multiple times Monday that families can choose all-remote learning options for their children. However, she said parents can’t “opt in and out, because you’re breaking the pod.”
“This whole model is to limit the interaction, so what we are calling for is if you make that determination, you are committing to that for a quarter,” Jackson said.
Though teachers who are high-risk can seek to opt out of teaching in-person, Jackson has previously said “the expectation will be that everybody else comes to work.” As the school year draws near, teachers are escalating their demands for all-online learning. Dozens of educators across Illinois have expressed a host of concerns, many hoping for more details about how students and teachers will be protected.
Some in the chat questioned whether teachers would become vectors for the virus by moving from pod to pod to teach. Jackson said the administrators are evaluating the maximum number of pods teachers will be allowed to see.
Despite the district’s efforts to increase access to technology, remote learning in the spring saw wide disparities in participation between white and Black students in CPS. The city has also announced a plan to provide free Internet to more than 100,000 students.
The district considered other options, including both full-time in-person learning and full-time remote learning, said CPS Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade, McDade said administrators believe the hybrid model strikes the best compromise between safety and learning needs, especially for the neediest students.
“While (full-time in-person learning) offers the lowest risk of spreading COVID-19, it also poses significant challenges to learning particularly for our most vulnerable student populations,” McDade said. A hybrid model “balances the critical need for health and safety mandates with the value of in-person learning.”
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