Local public elementary schools will resume instruction on Monday, April 13, after spring break, but they will do so virtually. In the meantime, administrators and teachers are working out curricula and logistics for however long the physical school closures last.
As it stands, schools will not take attendance or give grades that would negatively affect a student's standing, though incomplete grades can be issued. Teachers will be available for a minimum of four hours a day, with at least two hours of student-teacher engagement through digital instruction or talking over the internet or by phone.
The crisis has moved Ashley Keine, assistant principal at Shoesmith Elementary, 1330 E. 50th St., to put her Michigan State University master's degree in educational technology to good use.
"Anytime I talk to my colleagues, I tell them, 'I know we're all in crisis right now, but this is kind of my jam,'" she said in an interview. With Principal Sabrina L. Gates, Keine administered a survey for students' families through Google Forms.
"We felt disconnected," she explained. "We are not there administering these activities that teachers have put together and making sure that our families know how to access their digital curriculum. We kind of wanted to personally how it is going for our parents and our students, because we're really relying on our parents to partner with us."
Gates estimated that only a tenth of Shoesmith families lack internet access, but she noted that the administration wanted to know the types and variety of technological devices the families have.
"From the district and the digital divide that exists, Shoesmith is not the worst," she said. "Definitely over half of our families have something that our students can work on."
While Chicago Public Schools plans to distribute 100,000 Chromebooks, iPads and laptops to district families, Gates did not know how many would come to the Shoesmith's 370 students.
A Chicago Public Schools (CPS) spokesman later clarified that the devises will be prioritized to eighth graders, seniors, juniors, students with disabilities, English language learners, students in Advance Placement, dual credit or dual enrollment courses that require virtual learning and students in temporary living situations.
Keine noted the logistical issues of households with multiple grade levels but only one computer or other device. The school is trying to avoid conflicting live-streamed lessons as much as possible and utilizing online platforms that enable recording lessons for students' viewing later.
"There's a huge learning curve in all of this. There's a learning curve for our staff members, for us as leaders in managing and supporting our staff with professional development" Keine said, to say nothing of asking parents to take on instructional and childcare roles during the business day: "We're really trying to find out what that looks like to support as best as possible, so that parents really can breathe a little bit."
At the end of March, Shoesmith teachers connected with parents about what awaits them in the weeks ahead. Keine said the teachers will rise to the challenge — fourth grade teacher Kelly Lane realized that students' video game consoles can be used to digital learning in addition to laptop and tablet computers — but she acknowledged the omnipresent anxiety around working through the pandemic.
"We need to make sure that this works for everyone, because if it doesn't work for everyone, it's not going to work at all," she said.
Gates concurred, noting that teachers have worked with Google Classroom before but not to the extent that they will be now.
"With some grace and some flexibility, it's going to be OK, and we're going to forgive ourselves for any missteps and learn from them and fix them," she said.
Shoesmith has posted learning menus for students through the April 12, and other Hyde Park-Kenwood elementary schools have also posted resources online. Schools are to share their remote learning plans by Monday, April 6.
At an April 2 virtual town hall organized by Ald. Sophia King (4th), Chief Felicia Sanders of Chicago Public Schools Network 9 said individual schools will provide families with guidance when they become available.
'"As equity has been such a force and a focus for CPS this year, we are definitely looking at the areas where the need will probably be greater than other areas to make sure that our students can receive other technologies that will assist them," she said.
The district has distributed more than 2 million meals since the school shut down began last month, Sanders said, an average of 30,000 a day. Meal distribution will continue from 100 sites next week during spring break — locally at Ray School, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave., which will continue to be a site after schools virtually resume on April 13.
"We're really committed to working hard with students to ensure we keep the learning going, so that they can really receive the content that's grade-appropriate this year so that they'll be prepared for next year," Sanders said.
On March 30, Bret Harte School, 1556 E. 56th St., posted resource packets from CPS in English and Spanish for pre-kindergarteners, kindergarteners through second graders and students in grades 3-5 and 6-8.
For pre-K students, an independent project on shape exploration and instructions on reading with an adult or older reader with discussion questions to follow: "Read together in short 5-10 minute chunks. Take time to enjoy the story, discuss what's happening in the book, point out things on the page, and ask questions. Try reading with different voices for each character, or try acting out your favorites!"
The middle schoolers' packet included a 12-hour "independent civic action project" on COVID-19, centered around the question, "How can we care for our community and be socially responsible while living apart?" It included a link to a video from Vox about the disease's spread and the importance of social distancing.
Students are then to interview friends, family members, classmates or others — "Focus on different ages of people including other young adults and adult family members" — about what they know about coronavirus, how the pandemic has affected them and how they are maintaining connections while living apart. More research and analysis follows, then a "plan and take action" phase built around steps to take "to ensure everyone is safe, is socially responsible and feels connected to their communities."
Ray School, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave., has websites for each teacher as well as pages of parent and student resources. Seventh and eighth grade language teacher Sharece Johnson-Finner instructed students to complete a survey through Google Classroom for a self care check-in on April 2; on March 26, she added activities for Women's History Month with instructions for how to upload the assignment through photos and posted links for physical education activities.
A social and emotional learning packet is also online. Counselor Samantha Nieto, who is having office from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, wrote in it on March 18 with tips on talking to students about the coronavirus as resources for caretakers.
“You need to process all these emotions in order to help your littles process too,” Nieto wrote. “One of our most important jobs in the next few weeks is to simply take care of ourselves, and those around us.”