Framework plans will see most Chicago Public Schools students go to school twice a week and learn online other weekdays. District and city officials are asking parents to provide feedback through an online survey.
"This model allows many of our students to reap the benefits that they can only achieve through in-school instruction in front of a highly qualified teacher," said district CEO Janice Jackson at a Friday news conference.
"In order to ensure proper social distancing, the majority of our kindergarten through 10th grade students will split their time between learning at home and learning at school, but we are also differentiating the amount of in-person instruction for students based on age and developmental needs."
"If a student is scheduled to learn in-person on any given day, before they even leave their home they will be required to complete a health screener before showing up to school," she continued. "At the beginning of the school day, we will stagger start times to minimize contact. Students will be assigned to 'pods,' or groups, with no more than 15 students at a time, and these pods will stay together with the same group of teachers throughout the entire school year."
Grouping students together in a cohort has been used as a contact tracing mechanism elsewhere: if a pod member gets infected, it will be easier to track and contain its spread given students' quantified contacts, and the pod would be quarantined for 14 days. Pods, which will come to school two days a week, will have their own assigned classroom, in which students will have their own assigned seating.
All will be required to wear masks all day — Jackson said adults underestimate how quickly children adapt to changes and that children in other countries that have reopened schools have been able to wear masks — with scheduled trips to the bathroom to wash hands. Lunchrooms and gymnasiums will be regularly disinfected.
Pre-kindergarten, English language-learning, career and technical program, and special needs students will go to school every day, but most high school juniors and seniors will do remote learning most of the time, "due to the complexity of their schedules and our inability to keep the pods stable at a high school level, because their schedules differ greatly," Jackson said.
CPS has also purchased 1.2 million face coverings and tens of thousands of thermometers, containers of sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer.
"We're preparing to take extraordinary steps because the benefits of learning in person are so profound," Jackson said. "But let me be clear: there is no replacing a loving teacher and learning with your friends. We know that there are many academic benefits to having in-person school, but let us not forget the many social and emotional benefits for students when they engage in a positive learning environment."
The framework as proposed, she said, is a jumping-off point, asking for parental input before they make decisions for their children.
"I want to take this opportunity to make it clear to every parent up front that there will be options for you," Mayor Lori Lightfoot said. "This is a framework to serve as a jumping-off point for the next stage of engagement with the entire school community," promising district-community engagement will continue in the next two weeks.
Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady, a pediatrician, said her department supports plans for a hybrid education structure given the broad, current control of the disease in Chicago, though the acknowledged rising case counts and that the pandemic's end is "many, many, many months" off.
If local data worsens, Arwady said the Department of Public Health would recommend that in-person learning stop. "But right now," she said, "for so many reasons, we are pleased to be talking about school this fall." And if the circumstances necessitate all-remote or improve to allow all in-person education, the framework includes those contingencies, she said.
"The reality is that no place, no situation in or out of school that includes any interaction with other people is entirely risk-free from COVID," she said. "Kids need interaction for healthy development; young children in particular just do not learn as well through screens. So the most important thing is that any plan for in-person classroom education have as many precautions in place as possible … as well as solid plans that would limit the spread of COVID when the inevitable cases are detected."
While Lightfoot said she is not afraid of another strike happening, the Chicago Teachers Union has come out strongly against reopening school buildings. “We stand for a safe and equitable reopening of the schools, but today COVID-19 cases are soaring instead of dissipating,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey in a statement. “There is simply no way to guarantee safety for in-school learning during an out-of-control pandemic—and that means we must revert to remote learning until the spread of this virus is contained.”
"The decision by the mayor and CPS to expend time, energy, and money on a plan to reopen school buildings rather than prepare to make full remote learning more rewarding is irresponsible," a Friday statement read.
"This will inevitably place students and educators at risk of exposure. In a school district where 8 out of 10 students come from Black and Latinx communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, the decision to return children and educators to the classroom has the potential to further enflame the pandemic in our city."