Chicago Public Schools Has Stuck Us With Two Bad Reopening Options

Above, the CPS “fantasy circles” from the Reopening Preliminary Plan, where students in school are imagined to be limited to who they interact with, forgetting school start and finish, or the need to have multiple teachers for multiple subjects.

Like every parent, my wife and I are struggling with the decision of what to do for school and our son this fall. In Chicago, public school is scheduled to start September 8, in just over six weeks, and the choices are not looking good.

Last week, Chicago Public Schools announced a “hybrid model” plan, which would break students in grades K-10 into pods of 15 each – essentially half a classroom – and work in a 2-1-2 schedule, where one pod would spend two days in-class, while the other pod “learned independently at home”, then for one day everyone would work remote, then for two days more the two pods would swap “independently at home” and in-class. Grades 11 and 12 would spend the entire year remote. Anyone who endured last spring’s “independently at home” learning, knows that mostly means a lot of Fortnite and YouTube.

The school district is conducting a survey of parent interest through July 31, but the survey does not ask for reaction towards the plan. A set of online briefings are scheduled this week, but based on the amount of information released so far, I’m not inclined to expect much more detail. Final reopening plans will be released in early August – soon after the public comment. Which suggests to me CPS is not prepared to make major changes to their plan.

As momentous a decision as this is, I’m surprised at how little information CPS has provided, how little comment Mayor Lori Lightfoot has made, and how little reporting Chicago’s media outlets have done on the details of the plan. If you’re catching up, here’s some resources:

As I review the information available, four lines of questioning come to mind.

1. How do we assess health and safety risks?

Like almost everyone I know, I’ve been keeping a close tab on infection rates. I use, which shows that Illinois is on an upward surge. We’re better than many states, but compared to Europe, we’re doing terribly.

Knowing that Illinois – and Chicago specifically – does not have the virus under control sets the stage for all decision-making. And that knowledge challenges the idea that any kind of in-school experience will be safe under any circumstances. Studies of children and the virus suggest that children under ten do not transmit as much as older children and they are less likely to have severe symptoms even if they do get it. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation on reopening schools essentially says that the risk of catching or transmitting the virus is lower than children’s need for in-class, in-person instruction.

When looking at other countries who have reopened schools, like in Europe and Israel, it’s hard to make a true comparison to the United States, since in all of those countries the virus is under more control than it is here. Probably the biggest lesson we can learn from other countries’ experiences is to not reopen too fast, and to keep children separated as much as possible in school. 

We also now think that the virus is mostly spread person-to-person, through respiratory droplets. It might be spread through surface contact, but regular hand washing and cleaning significantly reduces that exposure. The CPS preliminary plan for in-school learning leans heavily on the idea of reduced interactions, basically cutting in half the number of children in a school at a time. It also includes mask-wearing, distancing, and increased custodial staff – although CPS has a bad reputation for keeping schools clean. The devil is in the details here, and CPS has not provided school-by-school details.

When it comes to assessing health and safety at our schools, there is a great temptation for magical thinking for those of us without medical degrees. Because last spring’s remote learning experience was terrible, we so badly want in-class learning to work.

Of course, keeping children at home for full remote learning is the safest option. No interaction, no possibility of going into a big, closed box full of possible virus carriers.

2. Where are the details for remote learning?

The preliminary plan for the in-class learning option outlined by CPS tells us that for one day a week there will be “pre-recorded classes” and online education, for five hours of instruction. But the other two days of “independently at-home” learning is poorly defined. If this year will be anything like last spring, it means kids get a series of worksheets either get in class earlier in the week or printed at home if they don’t go to class.

Any family can choose remote learning, the plan emphasizes. But for those who choose the remote-only option, CPS stresses that you have to stay in remote learning for a whole 14 week quarter. The preliminary plan, while detailing the logistics of in-class learning, includes no discussion of what the remote learning curriculum might be – other than the five hours of pre-recorded classes and online education the in-class students are getting once a week.

There’s no mention of access to teachers during the at-home portion, or for fully-remote students. Is there any one-on-one time? Is it just one teacher? What about “specials” like, art, music, or language? More confusing for me is, if teachers are busy managing the in-class pod, who has time for the at-home pod? Or fully-remote students?

The lack of detail for at-home/remote learning so close to when the school year starts, is deeply concerning. It does not seem as if CPS has thought this through, and worse yet, the idea that, “any family can choose fully remote learning,” seems like a false choice, since CPS’ remote learning has no details. If we choose remote learning for our child, is it simply going to be 14 weeks of being shunted away from all the other kids, with little real learning?

As it is defined today, choosing remote learning in CPS almost seems like choosing an educational penalty.

3. If my child doesn’t choose in-school learning, does that risk them falling behind?

This is the biggest question that vexes me. The way remote learning has been treated as an after thought for CPS students is alarming. In addition, last spring’s educational experience seemed to be bad for everyone involved. Even my fifth grade son seemed to think he wasn’t learning very much. The worksheets he had, weren’t teaching him anything new, he said. When he put his mind to it, he could race through a week’s worth of worksheets in five or six hours, leaving plenty of time for Fortnite for the rest of the week.

Our son has been diagnosed with ADHD, just like his dad, so we knew we’d have to watch him closely to ensure all his work was done on time. But ultimately we had to push him harder than we ever have, getting deep into his assignments, instruction, and school life, to make sure he completed all his work on-time and with no errors. It was unpleasant for all of us, since no kid wants his parents invading every aspect of their life. 

But keeping kids on task for remote learning was not limited to special needs kids like mine. Even parents I know with high achieving kids found their children were skipping classwork because the kids thought there was “no point”, and no adult around to ensure everything was done. There’s a role teacher-student relationships play that parents just can’t do right. 

I feel like we barely made it out of the spring quarter alive, and almost every other CPS parent I know had the same experience. The prospect of another remote learning experience with little support from CPS is daunting. I’m not sure how our family dynamic will survive it.

4. What resources are there to make sure remote learning is better?

Last spring, when we ran into instructional problems, we could talk to our son’s teacher, through email and scheduled video chats, but often teachers would shrug and apologize for the lack of resources. Remote learning for our son came down to a one hour class meeting with 30 kids a day, and then a stack of worksheets that had to be submitted to Google Classroom. The tyranny of Google Classroom, which CPS plans to use again this year, is that kids have to start their day – before any video chats – by reviewing their email and any comments in gClassroom. It’s just like going to an office job!

The coldness of gClassroom comments and kicking off the school day with a lack of social interaction was horribly dispiriting to our son, and only encouraged him to ignore email and gClassroom. To make it work, my wife and I had to sit down with our son at his computer every day, to review email with him. Time taken away from the jobs we have for livelihoods, and an unpleasant experience for our kid.

If this begins to happen again, what can be done to make it better? I haven’t read any details on how this year will be different. Or are we doing magical thinking again, because we so badly want it all to work?