The Current Status of Reopening
On March 1, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) welcomed back its first wave of returning students in grades K-5. A week later, thousands of 6th-8th graders were back in the classroom and, over a month later, CPS completed its final wave of reopening as high schools returned to the classroom in-person. The return to high schools came after the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the district reached an agreement in early April following weeks of negotiations involving work schedules and CPS’ student vaccination program. Similar to CPS’ elementary school reopenings, the city’s 169 high schools are using a hybrid model of learning to accommodate the nearly 26,000 high schoolers returning to schools for in-person instruction while preserving a remote learning option for its remaining 47,000 high school students.
On April 15 the district released a statement calling the agreement a “tremendous step forward for the academic and social-emotional well-being of our students,” while CTU President Jesse Sharkey agreed that the deal “delivers groundbreaking wins for the protection of our students and defends the safety and working conditions of all members in CPS.” The agreement appears to be a rare point of harmony amidst a school year filled with tense negotiations as teachers, students, parents, and school administrators have worked to balance equity and safety. However, even as tensions calm in the short-term, CPS still has significant long-term challenges to address.
A Network Chief’s Perspective
Much of the CPS reopening process has been overseen by its network chiefs. The district’s 642 schools are divided up into seventeen separate networks, each run by a network chief who is responsible for working directly with principals, community leaders, and staff in their network’s schools. Megan Hougard, a network chief who oversees the eighteen high schools that make up Network 16, cited the wider trauma of the past year. “I don’t see it as a CPS specific challenge,” Hougard remarked as high schools prepared to reopen. “This is the recovery of our country and world. There’s a double pandemic of racialized violence, and that is the forefront of all our thinking and planning.”
As one of the four high school chiefs in the district, Hougard has worked as a school teacher and administrator, an elementary school chief, and now plays a part in developing the district’s high school strategy. She described her day-to-day work as supervising principals, working with central office departments, and working with centralized district programs. Much of her work is on-the-ground, “hear[ing] both sides of the community...work[ing] directly with community action councils (CACs), involved with elementary reopening, as well as planning with high school reopening,” she said in an interview with The Gate.
Hougard is uniquely placed in the district; while much of the media coverage on district reopening has centered around the disputes between the the district and teacher’s union, Hougard helps bridge the gap between the two, communicating directly with teachers and principals in her day-to-day while working closely with CPSs’ Office of Network Support to communicate schools’ needs. A large part of Hougard’s role is also to manage stakeholder engagement at town halls and Local School Council (LSC) meetings. When asked how she manages conflict between various stakeholders, Hougard replied that she “[doesn’t] see any member of the school community as being in conflict with another stakeholder, but it’s on us to create space to have dialogue...when you get to the level of having empowered parents and students with a formal voice through Local School Councils, Parent Action Committees, Community Action Committees, there’s lot of ways for us to create space and raise up voices.”
Continued Challenges: Big Visions, Many Disagreements
Despite the outreach efforts of officials like Hougard, some stakeholders are still unsatisfied with the way CPS has handled the challenges of reopening. Amidst threats of a second teacher strike, tense negotiations dragged on for months. Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois who has studied CPS-CTU negotiations, described the situation as “dysfunction and chaos.” He added that the politics of negotiations are “burning down the village to win the war,” a sentiment that many parents echoed. Some LSCs and individual parents criticized the district for rushing into reopening, while others later accused the teachers’ union of “moving the goalposts” in its continued pushback against CPS’ plan to reopen high schools. Bill Choslovsky, a member of Lincoln Park High’s LSC, told the Tribune that he’s “sick of” CTU’s tactics. “So in refusing to reopen high schools, CTU now also claims it represents me and my kids?” He felt like the CTU was “throwing kids under the bus” and that stalled negotiations were in the interests of teachers, not students.
As a CPS parent, Choslovsky was not alone. Other parents expressed similar frustrations, feeling that the district level politics often left behind students and families. “All across America, students are returning to classrooms. But not my daughter, not our high schoolers. Why?” asked CPS parent Ammie Kessem in a searing Sun-Times Op-Ed. “Three words: The Chicago Teachers Union.” Kessem ended her piece by warning CTU that parents were willing to “take on the same fight for Chicago high school students” if the union did not reopen schools.
However, CTU chief of staff Jennifer Johnson said it was important to consider the characteristics of individual buildings, like whether they have windows that open, the size of classrooms and adequate spaces for staff. Such safety concerns are nothing new; from the district’s first reopening plans, safety has been at the forefront of detractors’ criticisms. Furthermore, CPS’ Covid-19 infection rate also continues to climb. Within the first two weeks of April, the district’s weekly total case count jumped from 58 to 81. "[The level of infections] speaks for itself,” one teacher, a supporter of the Chicago Educators Rank-and-File Safety Committee, said. “The CDC and the economy don't care. This is our new life. It’s no longer a matter of ‘what if I catch COVID-19,’ but ‘when will I catch it?’
Despite the disagreements, Hougard has still seen unification on a school-level. “In every community, I’ve seen a lot of support for students and families really struggling,” she said. She even described one principal and their staff at one of the high schools she oversees as “more united than they’ve ever been, [even] as challenging and heartbreaking [the pandemic has been].”
Hougard also sees potential resolution in stakeholder engagement; she emphasized that the district needs to continue work towards a “healing-centered framework” that involves “acknowledging the needs of everyone in the system.” She mentioned behavioral health and care teams, tiered Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) supports within the schools, and community partner input as paths to equity, a sentiment shared by CEO Janice Jackson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. She did not elaborate on how the district could create or improve upon these supports as it manages hybrid learning and high school reopening, but mentioned that it was most important to address how her network could “empower schools to have all stakeholders at the table.” For her, the most important part of engagement is the district “not taking the expertise away from the parents and students, who really have the most at stake and really should have the biggest voice.”
A Look Forward
As CPS prepares to transition into the summer and next school year, it has already announced several changes to support students in the midst of this year’s difficult circumstances in order to curb some of the inequities created by the pandemic. All students will advance to the next grade level, regardless of any failing grades earned this year, and the district has dropped the use of one of the two standardized tests used for the selective enrollment high school process. Perhaps the most impactful news came on April 21, when CPS announced that it is planning for daily in-person classes in the fall, supported by an additional $225 million to address students' needs as the district transitions away from remote learning. The announcement comes after the district hosted four public forums and multiple feedback cycles aimed at addressing the resource inequities highlighted by the pandemic and staggering enrollment declines over the past year.
For the rest of the 2021 school year, CPS is taking small steps forward. The district is working to implement a vaccination program for students, as requested by the union in its agreement over high school reopening. For chiefs like Megan Hougard, the work to confront the district’s “double pandemic” is far from over, and she hopes the lessons of the past year are not lost. “I think we are getting really good at thinking on our feet and listening and adapting. I would wonder if we could build it into our way of operating [to] seek feedback from all stakeholders at a regular cycle.” She added that recovery will be very long-term for communities that have been hardest hit in Chicago, but that she is not completely sure what CPS’ path will look like. No one person is, but for the country’s third-largest school district, elementary and high school reopenings offer a path forward for CPS’ teachers, parents, and students.