A District in Crisis: Understanding Chicago Public Schools Reopening

 /  Jan. 20, 2021, 3:25 p.m.

Most Chicago classrooms have remained empty since March.

On February 1, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) plans to welcome back its K-8th graders for in-person instruction, after reopening its buildings for preschool students on January 11th; however, these decisions remain controversial as the district faces mounting pressure to close back down.

This comes nearly a year after schools made the abrupt transition to virtual learning during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.  On March 13, 2020, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot joined CPS CEO Janice Jackson to announce the closure of K-12 schools in Chicago. In early August, CPS announced that the district would continue remote learning in the fall, a sudden shift from earlier plans to return to classrooms in September. Lightfoot stated she “bowed to the science” amidst surging COVID-19 cases and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU’s) threat to strike, but emphasized the importance of returning to in-person learning as soon as possible. “We remain committed to getting kids back in school . . . I hope the health conditions allow us to do that on November 6,” Lightfoot stated. 

Two months later, the district announced that it would include an option for families to return to in-person instruction beginning in 2021, in spite of surging coronavirus cases citywide. Even as the city faced worse health conditions than it had during the summer, it was becoming clear that remote learning is inequitable for many CPS students. As Lightfoot stated, “the reality is that our Black and Latinx students [and] our youngest students and highest-need learners have not been equitably served.” While the district also announced it would spend over $100 million on coronavirus-prevention measures, the sudden change of plans was met with immediate controversy, from parents, local school councils, and the Chicago Teachers Union.

Why is CPS choosing to reopen its schools for in-person learning, despite low in-person enrollment rates and surging COVID-19 cases? Like many school districts across the country, CPS is facing an educational crisis, dealing with plummeting enrollment and rising inequity as symptoms of remote learning. Yet the road to reopen has not been an easy one, and many argue that, despite the district’s struggles, it is still not a risk worth taking. 

Learning Remotely: Students and Parents’ Perspectives

“Help Me.”

This was what one CPS student wrote in an online petition asking the district to shorten the virtual school day. Another wrote that students “have already been getting headaches, sore necks and backs, and strained eyes . . . mentally, we feel exhausted, unmotivated, and isolated.” The petition began circulating in October, just one month after CPS had restarted virtual learning for the 2020-21 school year. It can be traced back to Idalia, an eighth-grader at Boone Elementary, who is one of many CPS students actively speaking up about reforming CPS’s remote learning environment. Yet, despite student complaints, Jackson has said there will not be any cuts in live instructional time built into remote schedules. According to Jackson, students have already lost too much in-person instruction time due to spring closures and the 2019 CTU strike.

Virtual instruction is also failing to maintain the academic standards the district hoped for. Like other school districts across the country, Chicago students are receiving more failing grades than ever before. This trend is also not equally distributed, but instead has led to widening achievement gaps between Black and Latinx students and their white and Asian counterparts in Chicago. The district also saw a large drop in overall enrollment last autumn, losing a record 14,500 students, many of whom were young students of color. “The stunning decline among Black children enrolled in pre-K casts a somber light on how the pandemic and remote learning negatively impact our youngest learners,” said CPS Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade.

Meanwhile, parents are also struggling with CPS remote learning, especially parents of younger students and special education students. Sarah Sachen, a mother of four, two of whom are diverse learners, works with her ten-year old son one-on-one to keep him engaged while simultaneously monitoring her seven-year-old daughter. She describes her role as “an overworked non-paid CPS employee," one of many parents forced to be both a caregiver and classroom helper while also working from home. “It is not sustainable to monitor their schooling at the same time that you’re working full time,” said Cornelia Grumman, education director at the McCormick Foundation, which focuses on early childhood development programs. 

For some parents, working full-time is not even an option. As of October 2020, it was reported that nearly 20 percent of parents with kids learning at home had to take a leave of absence to quit their job in the absence of affordable childcare. “Allowing workplaces to reopen while schools, camps and daycares remain closed tells a generation of working parents that it’s fine if they lose their jobs, insurance and livelihoods in the process,” wrote Deb Pearlman in a scathing New York Times Op-Ed in July 2020. “In the COVID-19 economy, you’re allowed only a kid or a job.”

The Other Side of the Screen: Teachers’ Perspectives

While many parents work to keep their kids engaged from home, teachers face many hurdles when it comes to remote learning. While CPS policy is that students keep their cameras on during live instruction, many teachers do not enforce this rule, which leaves some teaching to a dark screen. Teachers also have difficulty contacting students in remote environments to make sure that they are engaged in class and to check on them before or after their instructional period ends. With more students failing core classes, gauging engagement is a more pressing issue than ever before.

Despite instructional challenges, the Chicago Teachers Union has made it clear that the health and safety of CPS students and teachers must come first amid worsening pandemic conditions. While the district argues the reopening proposal’s “opt-in” component is designed to fulfill “100 percent of wishes,” this only applies to students and parents. According to Jackson, teachers’ only way to “opt-out” is to “submit a formal request for medical leave.” For teachers without preexisting conditions who simply “don’t show up” to school buildings, “they will be fired,” Jackson stated in early December. As of January 8, 81 percent of staff who applied for accommodations because they lived with someone with a serious medical condition were denied.

In early December, the CTU filed a motion for an injunction with the Illinois Educational Relations Board over CPS reopening plans, proposing a reopening threshold based on ZIP code positivity rates and increased health and safety measures for CPS school buildings. With the city’s positivity rate surpassing 8 percent, the CTU argued conditions were not safe for reopening, instead proposing a 3 percent test positivity threshold for school opening and closing determinations. While current CPS COVID-19 protocols include completion of a daily health screener, smaller class sizes, hand sanitizer dispensers, and contact tracing, the CTU has repeatedly called out the district for not doing enough. “We have a bad experience in the past with Chicago Public Schools . . . they have made promises that they haven't delivered," said CTU President Jesse Sharkey the week before schools reopened. 

Many opponents also called out the district for perpetuating inequity rather than addressing it. While two-thirds of white families opted into in-person learning, only one-third of Black, Latinx, and Asian families did the same. Sharkey was quick to note the stark racial divide in in-person enrollment. “What we’re seeing is that a large majority of families are not ready to send their children back,” Sharkey stated, “especially families in neighborhoods where COVID infections and death [are] the highest.” He also argued that remote students, many of whom are students of color, would be hurt by the shift, as they could lose attention from teachers also leading in-person instruction. 

No amount of pushback has swayed the CPS decision, and many teachers have resorted to simply not showing up in-person, despite Jackson’s threats. On January 4—the Monday before in-person schooling planned to resume for preschool students—half of all teachers required to report to school buildings did not. Three days later, that number had grown to 58 percent of teachers. Additionally, 76 percent of aldermen in the city have also backed the CTU, signing a letter saying they are “deeply concerned” about the reopening plan. While CPS claims the district’s safety mitigation efforts exceed public health standards, the CTU has been quick to release evidence of poor school conditions, including dirty classrooms and missing air purifiers. Lean Carrillo, a preschool special education teacher on Chicago’s North Side, said a functioning window was the only thing that her classroom needed to pass air quality and ventilation tests, and that her classroom had plenty of “grime and dirt” when she went in to clean it in October, despite custodian presence in the building. “Now everything is gross. We’re cleaning all of our own stuff,” Carrillo reported

The CTU has also released a set of proposals on January 5 separate from the ones they set forth in December, suggesting that the district make teacher return optional, establish a mass testing program, extend the school year, and put in-person schooling on hold until teachers are vaccinated (which should be by February or March, according to city officials). None of these have yet garnered a response from CPS. Sharkey says the CTU will continue to hold meetings with CPS, but that the CTU will consider a strike authorization vote if necessary. The possibility of a strike is becoming increasingly likely, as Illinois lawmakers voted thirty-eight to sixteen to repeal Section 4.5 of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act on January 11, a move that will expand the union’s bargaining power to include reopening. Previously, Section 4.5 limited the bargaining power of the CTU to “bread-and-butter labor issues such as pay and benefits”. However, as of January 18, the bill has yet to be signed by Governor J.B. Pritzker.

On the first day of instruction for preschool students, 71 percent of teachers and 81 percent of paraprofessional staff expected back were present, after CPS sent emails reminding teachers of potential disciplinary actions for those who continued to hold out. Roughly 150 teachers who remained absent last Monday received warnings from the district and were subsequently docked pay and locked out of their online CPS accounts last Tuesday. By Wednesday, the number of teachers docked pay had dropped to fifty, as staff returned to school or had a valid excuse to teach remotely. Of the teachers locked out, some found ways around the punishment, using personal emails to teach remotely. Some teachers even taught their classes outside the home of CPS Board President Miguel de Valle in protest, as the CTU continues to object to reopening plans. "We're going to keep working at the table trying to get a solution,” Sharkey said last Thursday. “I hope we're able to do that, because the alternative is not a good one."

Attempting Equity: The District’s Final Word

Despite pushback from local officials and Chicago teachers, CPS has continued to make it clear that, this time around, the option for in-person learning is non-negotiable. “We can’t sit back and let an entire generation falter because of made-up reasons why we can’t do reopening,” said Jackson, in a press conference the week before schools reopened. “The fact that more white families are opting in has nothing to do with our responsibility and obligation to make sure that the Black and Latino students in this district get a quality education.” CPS’ narrative of educational equity has been the forefront of the district’s push for reopening since their announcement in November, citing evidence that schools can reopen safely and with low transmission risks. The district argues that, even if remote learning is not working for one-third of families, that’s reason enough to return. 

While CPS initially stated its willingness to collaborate with CTU during negotiations in early January, Jackson later complained during a press conference on January 8 that the union was trying to bargain over “non-pandemic” related issues, such as rent abatement and affordable housing. Jackson argued that the union was now “moving the goalposts,” a tactic she was “all too familiar with,” but states that she wants the CPS-CTU negotiations to focus solely on key issues related to reopening. 

As negotiations continue, the debate over reopening CPS’ 642 schools is much more muddled than equity versus safety, but rather about the risks of attempting to deliver—according to CPS—more equitable education in a pandemic environment, and whether these risks achieve the district’s desired outcome. As CPS tries what many other school districts have already risked, it is uncertain whether its decision to reopen was worth the long-fought battle for in-person instruction.

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the CC0 Public Domain. No changes were made to the original image, which can be found here.

Maggie Rivera


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