The nation’s third-largest school system on Wednesday rolled back plans for in-person classes when the fall semester begins Sept. 8, saying it will be at least November before children are back in the classroom in Chicago.
The decision leaves New York as the only major school system still considering opening school buildings.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools CEO Janice Jackson said the decision was the result of trends in public health data and a survey of parents indicating a large number were uncomfortable with the idea of sending their children to school, despite the hardships remote learning impose.
Coronavirus cases have been rising in the Chicago area and were up 3.5% since last week, with the rolling seven-day average averaging 5%. Some 497 cases reported in the past 24 hours, a sharp increase from the rolling seven-day average of fewer than 200 a month ago.
The decision covers the first quarter of the school year. The second quarter begins Nov. 9 and officials will reassess whether it is safe to implement a hybrid model that would have children spending part of the week in school classrooms and the rest learning from home.
The Chicago Teachers Union, which opposed opening school buildings, had been preparing for a possible strike to stop the 361,000-student district of opening classrooms. The American Federation of Teachers said last week it would support any teachers striking over coronavirus concerns.
“As a district, we value parent feedback and we cannot overlook that a large percentage of parents have indicated they do not feel comfortable sending their students to school under a hybrid model for the start of the school year,” Jackson said, adding the district was making “every possible effort to provide a high-quality remote learning experience.”
About 41% of elementary and 38% of high school parents indicated they did not intend to send their children back into schools at the start of the school year.
Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said though Chicago is in better shape in terms of coronavirus infections that other parts of the country, recent trends “are very concerning.” She said the decision to abandon plans for some in-person classes a difficult one.
“The fact that over the last four to five weeks, we’ve added between 80 and 100 cases and not seen signs of that turning around, makes us concerned as we’re planning ahead for a complicated school district like CPS,” Arwady said at a joint news conference with Lightfoot and Jackson.
“Combined with the trends that were seeing, the decision to start remotely makes sense for a district of CPS’s size and diversity,” Lightfoot said.
Schools distributed 128,000 “computing devices” when it was forced to implement remote learning in the spring and planned to make an additional 36,000 devices available for the fall. The district also is extending free, high-speed internet access to an estimated 100,000 students who need it.
“I’m one level relieved, I’m also really sad,” Katherine O’Brien, whose husband teaches in Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune. “I think we all really, really wanted the returns to schools. We all wanted something to work out. We also recognize that’s not feasible at this time, it’s not physically safe yet at this point.”
Classes will be held through Google Classroom and Google Meet. Other platforms also will be available and instruction will span a full school day.
New York City schools, the nation’s largest district, were scheduled to open with students able to choose whether to attend in person three days a week. However, logistical problems have yet to be resolved and the district also is facing resistance from teachers.