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CPS plan for reopening schools remains unclear as parents share remote learning woes with Board of Education: ‘It’s just not working’

Wednesday’s Chicago Board of Education meeting offered little clarity for everyone who wants to know if students will be back in classrooms when the second quarter begins in November.

Allison Gorsuch, who has a child in kindergarten at Pulaski International School of Chicago, called on the board to be transparent and “release criteria for reopening as soon as possible.”

“Remote learning is not developmentally appropriate for kindergartners,” she said. “... I’ve watched my student and his teacher work really hard at remote learning, but he’s 5, and it’s just not working."

Gorsuch said she would push for reopening as soon as it was safe to do so.

“I’m not asking for schools to reopen before it’s safe, but I’m asking for this not to be a lost year for our youngest students,” she said.

She also asked for students to have access to rapid testing for COVID-19. “I believe this is the way forward.”

As parents spoke about their experiences so far with remote learning, many praised their children’s teachers but still had concerns about some of the rules, such as screen time. Though some schools have been relaxed about camera usage, others are requiring students to keep their cameras on during class in order to get credit for participating, parents said.

A district plan that would bring some students back into buildings for special education services has met opposition from the Chicago Teachers Union, which earlier this week called the proposal “unworkable and dangerous.”

Mary Hughes, special education parent liaison with Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, said many schools are treating the latest guidance from the district’s Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services as “gospel," but it doesn’t work for everyone.

“It is unrealistic to think that this almost 70-page document is usable for parents who are not teachers, non-English speakers or simply overwhelmed with the task of trying to facilitate remote special education for their disabled children,” Hughes said.

Hughes, who has four children in Chicago Public Schools, said the district needs to clarify that it’s OK to make accommodations and modifications around screen time and length of school day for students with individualized education plans, and that parents should have input about their child’s remote learning plan.

“Communication between ODLSS and special education stakeholders needs to be expanded and sharpened,” Hughes said. “... Remote special education cannot work without parent, teacher and school administration support, input and collaboration.”

Angela Habr-Paranjape, executive director of the Hyde Park neighborhood club, said the club’s learning pods, with nearly 50 students representing many CPS schools, offer a unique window into the challenging and inconsistent expectations placed on students of a similar age. So much time is spent on tech support and constantly redirecting children to screens, there has been little time for enrichment or outdoor activities, she said.

“There has been progress and the teachers, the parents are doing all that they can with what we have to work with, but I echo some of the concerns that were shared about meeting the students where they are,” Sotelo said. He added that "can be traumatic to some of the students because their rooms are not as conducive to learning. ... Those are points we certainly need to continue to consider.”

The updated numbers indicate that 86% of students districtwide logged on for the first day of school, though previously released data shows that number slipped below 40% at some schools. White students were the most likely to log in, a continuing inequity from remote learning in the spring. About 96% of white students attended the first day of school, compared with 88% of Hispanic or Latino students and 78% of Black students, according to CPS.

Attendance was lowest among students in temporary living situations, at 77%, while 79% of students with special education plants and 84% of English learning students attended the first day. Average attendance improved over the week, during which attendance rates rose to 89% for all students, 96% for white students, 91% for Hispanic or Latino students, 83% for Black students, and 95% for students of other races.

Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade said CPS extended its “did not arrive" policy to two weeks. On the first day, there would have been 49,000 students marked as having not arrived and potentially dropped from classes, but with the extended window, that number was down to 6,900, she said.

“How are we going to connect with the 6,900?” asked Board President Miguel del Valle.

The number is lower now, and some of those students transferred to charter schools or out of the district, so once that’s sorted out the district will have a clearer picture of who’s missing, McDade said.

The district is continuing to call those students and find out how to support them, especially focusing on kindergarten and ninth grade, McDade said. More than 1,300 security officers have been trained in de-escalation and home visit protocols, and all will participate in an “ambassador” program for students who can’t be reached through emails and multiple phone calls, prioritizing 100 schools with low attendance, she said.

CPS CEO Janice Jackson said the district is also expanding the “learning hubs” that initially opened at six schools, staffed by community organizations providing child supervision. While the sites were first limited to children of essential workers from low-income or underrepresented families, they are now opening more broadly to qualified families, she said.

“We will continue to expand as the need arises,” Jackson said, adding that yesterday CPS sent 2,500 invitations. Plans include opening three more sites next week in Englewood, North Lawndale and Rogers Park.

CPS has committed to remote learning through the first quarter, which ends Nov. 5. The next Board of Education meeting is Oct. 28.

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