Chicago, IL

The Latest News About Chicago Public Schools Including Inadequate Safety Plan and Poor Options for Quarantined Students

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

As the pandemic continues to threaten the well-being of those in Chicago, city schools struggle with decisions that affect students, staff and families.
Chicago children return to school despite claims of inadequate COVID safety planCalifornia Health Report

As parents, students and staff get ready for school to start less than a week from now, there are a number of issues in the news. In particular, now that the number of COVID cases is once more, rising, there are several stories related to the safety and health of those attending and working in the Chicago school district.

Lack of Adequate COVID Safety Plan

This week, a spokesperson for the Chicago Teachers Union, said that union members believe that with the Delta variant spreading, it is still not safe to return to in-person classes. The Union says that so far they only have a commitment to about 25 percent of the safety measures that were in place when students returned to classrooms last year. CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said what they want is the same mitigations that were already there. Gates pointed out that with these practices in place, when students returned to schools last year, “. "We did not experience widespread outbreaks last winter and spring."

Union members say that it unsafe to bring children inside schools when so many of them still can’t be vaccinated due to being under the age when they would be eligible and such a action makes for an unhealthy working and learning environment. Union President Jesse Sharkey criticized Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot for failing to honor her promise to keeping schools closed if COVID transmission rates became too high. "We had a commitment that if transmission got to dangerous levels, the schools would be put on pause," said Sharkey. "The state mandate allows that to happen, but we have no commitment on the part of the mayor."

Although the daily metrics have decreased slightly with 443 positive cases, 27 hospitalizations and 2.86 deaths in Chicago, Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago public health Commissioner, previously stated that 400 cases per day was a “line in the sand for us,” where additional mitigations would be imposed. This is also the number at which schools were closed last year. She also stated that reaching and surpassing that number will not affect schools reopening on August 30th. She added that this was because we now have a vaccine. However, as members of the CTU pointed out, entire schools of children too young to get vaccinated.

The CTU has stated that the mayor must formulate “a safe and stable plan” for children to be able to return to in-person learning. This would include what happens if children are exposed, what measures will be put in place if a class is required to be quarantined, and how would remote learning be improved from last year.

Despite school set to open in five days, the mayor is continuing to negotiate over COVID safety measures, even though almost 50 local and state politicians wrote her a letter demanding a more complete safety plan for schools. One of the mitigation measures they want to see put in place is requiring two weeks of remote learning for an entire class if a student in that class tests positive for the virus.

Although there has been disagreements over whether school should reopen next week given how far CTU says they are from having adequate protections in place for students and staff, the mayor has stated no such disagreement exists.

"There's no dispute, everyone agrees that we're going to open up next week on Monday, August 30th, five days a week in person. There's no dispute that teachers and other staff of CPS will be vaccinated as a requirement starting on October 15," Lightfoot said.

CTU Claims Mayor Roll Back of 75 Percent of Mitigation Strategies Used Last Year Will Make Schools Unsafe

The Chicago Teacher’s Union says Mayor Lightfoot claims to have “a mountain of evidence” to prove it’s safe to open the schools. They say this amounts to the success of mitigation efforts agreed to last year despite the fact that she refuses to agree to these measures for this year.

These mitigations that Lightfoot says were successful at keeping students safe last year worked when only 25 percent of the students returned to in-person instruction. CTU members say that it makes no sense to not put in place 75 percent of those mitigations when 100 percent of the students are scheduled to return.

Some of the mitigations being rolled back include:

  • Social distancing – While CPS originally agreed to six feet of social distancing last year this year they will only agree to three feet and only where possible.
  • Mandatory COVID testing - CPS has said testing will occur with 10 percent of students preventing discovery of true transmission of the virus.
  • Health screeners - CPS intends for families to take care of screening of their children and will assume that if a student is in school that means they’ve been screened and have passed. CTU calls this “crazy” and “dangerous.”

View a summary of the bargaining session held between the mayor and CTU and reactions below.

Chicago Schools Unprepared to Teach Quarantined Students This Year

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, has stated that who “Schools have shown that they can — and should — be offering in-person learning opportunities five days a week to every student.” Per his urging and Illinois state proclamation, the remote and hybrid instruction programs used to teach Chicago students last year have been largely done away with.

Remote instruction will be provided for students forced to quarantine because of exposure to someone with the virus or students who test positive for the virus. Many parents have asked that remote learning options be made available to all students, however, CPS are only willing to offer virtual learning to students who are “medically fragile,” or who have documented health problems.

CPU says this is not enough, even when just allowed for a small segment of the students in the Chicago Public School System. Last year, because everyone had been using remote learning for most of the year and the program were still up and running, when students who had returned to school needed to quarantine they could quickly and easily change over to virtual learning.

This year, however, schools will be forced to become creative in finding ways to teach children who must be taught remotely. Some schools have set up the process to be much like the traditional approach for students out of schools a few s for a cold or other ailment. Classroom teachers will send work home and they will have access to a substitute for extra help. Children will not, however, be able to join a Zoom class or other virtual real time option. These schools says that this is too much of a burden on teachers and it’s been shown not to be an effective method of teaching.

Other school systems will have programs set up to allow quarantined students to attend school remotely. For example, Arlington Heights has hired four “quarantine teachers,” to run their “Quarantine Academy.” It will be a multi-grade format and will include special education programs.

River Trails teachers will keep a virtual window to class open through Google Meet so quarantined students can watch their lessons and the classroom activities that are going on.

Palatine High Schools have each hired a “Quarantine Instruction Coordinator” who will assign tutoring services to quarantined children. These children will not have access to their classrooms through remote learning.

There’s no way to tell at this time, what the effect of bringing all children back into an in-person setting will be or how many students may end up needing to be educated while in quarantine or at home with the virus. It has been suggested that this could become a big problem since regular childhood illnesses like strep throat, colds and gastrointestinal viruses tend to surge during the fall. The fear is we could be facing the same surge in children for COVID-19, leaving schools woefully unprepared to instruct this body of students remotely.

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