The first wave of Chicago Public Schools families whose children are eligible to return to schools have until next Wednesday to decide if they will.
If they choose to continue remote learning, that could affect their options later on, according to a letter addressed to CPS families enrolled in prekindergarten or special education cluster programs.
But a district spokesman on Thursday said all students who seek in-person learning will get the option if schools are open in quarter three, regardless of the option they select for quarter two, and parents “will receive a clarification in the near future to address any potential confusion.”
“If interest is high, there is a chance that some classrooms would need to proceed in a hybrid model as opposed to daily in-person instruction, which will be possible in most cases,” according to a statement provided by CPS spokesman James Gherardi. “The language in the letter was intended to refer to the potential for hybrid learning, but we understand the confusion it may have caused.”
CPS has not released a detailed plan or specific date when schools could begin reopening. But district leaders announced last week that they would offer in-person learning to pre-K and some special education students sometime after second quarter begins in November.
“We would like to potentially welcome our students in pre-k or moderate and intensive cluster programs back to school for in-person learning later in the second quarter,” states the letter to families. “Our youngest learners and students enrolled in moderate and intensive cluster programs will benefit most from in-person instruction, and in close collaboration with our public health officials, we believe we can welcome students back into the building in a safe and responsible manner based on our stringent health protocols and data from other school districts.”
For staffing purposes, the letter says, CPS wants to know which children will return to in-person learning “later this fall" and asks families to submit a separate form by Wednesday for every child who qualifies for the option.
“If you choose to continue learning at home, or do not complete this form by the deadline, your child will continue to participate in virtual instruction throughout the second quarter,” according to the letter. “You will have the option to enroll in in-person learning at the start of the third quarter, if space is available.”
The part about available space feels more like an ultimatum than a choice, said Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates.
“That’s an ultimatum, and families deserve more than that,” Davis Gates said. “It’s hard enough for everyone, discerning the science from the politics, what’s safe and what isn’t safe... folks are under a lot of pressure.”
She said the district isn’t properly bargaining with the union or incorporating feedback, and educators who have children in pre-K or cluster programs are in an especially difficult position.
“It’s not just a communications error; they don’t engage with stakeholders,” she said. “Our members have whiplash, especially those who are parents. ... I think that our families and our students and our educators deserve predictability, as much as they deserve safety, as much as they deserve engagement, as much as they deserve transparency. And we are getting none of that at a time when we need all of it.”
The union isn’t saying no to in-person learning; members are asking how, and want any plan to be supported by comprehensive testing along with contact tracing, a nurse and good ventilation, among other measures, Davis Gates said. And she said she doesn’t think it makes sense to bring back students with co-morbidities when the virus is surging.
“It is in the interest of families, students, educators, the school district and certainly the mayor to have a school district that is safe, that is open, and that inspires confidence in all stakeholders, and they continue to drop the ball on every element of that because they refuse to engage," she said.
While CPS enrollment has been on the downturn, school leaders have attributed an especially “stunning” decline in pre-K enrollment this fall to COVID-19.
But Davis Gates said the district should also have communicated with families more and made a decision earlier about fall quarter. “Enrollment loss is also about their inability to pivot because there’s a pandemic, and work with people who can get kids enrolled in school and provide clarity,” she said.