night train approaching

CPS Can Stop This Train Wreck and Start The School Year Smart

This morning, more than 20 Chicago community groups, parents organizations and labor allies joined the Chicago Teachers Union in a day of resistance. Their demand: that Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot put public health, racial justice and appropriate funding first and delay the re-opening of Chicago Public Schools in person to ensure community safety and well-being.

In a recent interview with Chalkbeat, schools CEO Janice Jackson acknowledged the district has prioritized its hybrid plan, saying, “We put together a plan that has as many options as possible for families. We also have to take into consideration the fact that our teachers can’t be in two places at one time. We know that in-person instruction is the most impactful way to educate students. And so this is one of the trade-offs.”

Meanwhile, on the ground, parents, students and teachers are desperate to get out of the box of choosing between a potentially life-threatening return to school and inequitable, often-inadequate remote learning. They are craving a more creative approach. Thanks to a survey from Raise Your Hand, we already know a lot about what parents want: an “extremely cautious” start to in-person school and remote learning that gives more kids direct contact with and support from teachers.

Is there any way out of this impasse? I think so. Here’s how.

Start Remote-Plus

Chicago Public Schools could shift its focus from the current hybrid plan to a “remote-plus” plan. The assumption would be as many students as possible start remotely, reassuring understandably-skittish teachers and parents that they are not walking into a death trap by resuming school. The district could start with only the students it already named as highest priority: preK and “cluster students” (students with IEPs who require significant learning and other supports in school). With so few students in school buildings, they could be spread out into even smaller groups, of 10 or fewer, and it would be easier to keep buildings clean and provide sufficient PPE.

Meanwhile, much more energy could be invested in both improving the quality of remote learning and building partnerships with the Chicago Park District and community based, out-of-school time providers to create safe, socially-distanced alternatives to sending teachers and students into buildings with antiquated HVAC systems and other issues.

Once remote has been established as the default, teachers almost certainly would be much more open to creative possibilities like holding outdoor orientations so they can meet their new groups of students in person and build face-to-face relationships. As the school year approaches, teachers know exactly how hard it will be to do remote learning from the git-go with a new group of students. Once we’ve assured them we’re not going to put their lives in danger, they’ll be much more open to creative ways to start the school year safely and get to meet their new students, too.

Give Principals and LSCs Power to Manage Remote and Outdoor Learning

Since 1990, Chicago has chosen to put a check on central office authority by creating Local School Councils, where parents, teachers and community members make budget decisions and hire principals. Sure, there’s been a ton of tension between central office and the councils over the last 30 years, and efforts to bring power back to the central office have made a lot of headway.

But now would be an excellent time to restore more authority to schools through their LSCs. Each school community knows its resources and challenges. The pandemic brings very different sets of risks to each community. Ideally, principals and councils can work together to develop learning solutions that work for their particular students and families.

Also ideally, central office would intervene only where individual school cultures for this kind of decision making are weak or absent. When that becomes necessary, the network or central office staff involved should have the relationships to grease the wheels for school communities to improve their decision-making. If district staff impose solutions by fiat, the whole effort could backfire.

CPS Must Offer Schools Expertise and Equity

Central office staff could also put the time to work to consider how to send centrally controlled resources more equitably to schools that need them the most. We know schools with strong fundraising arms and solid community partnerships will do their best to put them to work, especially if we reduce everyone’s anxiety over the coming school year. Where needed, central office staff can help create or strengthen partnerships that support a broader range of schools. Ideally this would start with the Chicago Park District–so far we’ve heard nothing about how schools and parks can work together to support kids safely for care and learning, and that’s a shame.

The district has some history that suggests this could be possible. At the high school level, the Network for College Success has been providing guidance and support to a small group of high schools since 2006. If district leadership looks to their model of sharing expertise across schools and applies they lessons they’ve learned on how to work for equity and innovative practices, we could possibly stave off what now looks like an impending train wreck of a school year.

Photo by William for Adobe Stock.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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