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Chicago could reopen schools in January. Here’s what they’re telling parents so far

Ogden International School of Chicago
Ogden International School of Chicago could bring its elementary students back as soon as January.
Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat

With a tentative reopening date in place, Chicago has given parents two weeks to respond to a survey on whether they’d consider sending their children back to school buildings.

This isn’t the first time parents have been asked to weigh in on in-person schooling, but in recent weeks, Chicago school officials have released more concrete plans and argued with increasing seriousness for a return to school.

To help families make a decision by Dec. 7, the district released a reopening guide that they say will continue to be updated, with information about scheduling and key dates in the phased reopening plan. You can find it here.

Here’s what the district’s latest reopening plan can - and can’t - tell parents about the district’s plans for a return to school buildings this year:

The district is laying out several different plans and time frames for an eventual return, but will rely on schools to create specific plans

Chicago families with children in pre-kindergarten or special education cluster programs can choose between full-time in-person, hybrid or remote learning, and can return as early as Jan. 11.

For other grades, families can choose between a hybrid or remote learning options. Students up to eighth grade could return as early as Feb. 1. For middle school students, schools are expected to let families know by Jan. 18 if they’ll offer in-person instruction this school year. There is no date for when high school students would return to buildings.

In all of those cases, the reopening plans will vary by individual schools, and therefore likely look different in every school and grade level.

Families who submitted their responses to an October district survey about a return to school don’t need to resubmit their response, but other families will be expected to respond by Dec. 4.

In the summer, when positivity rates were around 4%, 41% of elementary school parents and 38% of high school parents told the district that they did not feel comfortable with their children returning to school. Of Black and Latino families, only 20% said they would plan to send their children to school, according to district figures

Teachers may be required to instruct both in-person and remote students at the same time

Some teachers could be required to teach in-person students and remote students simultaneously, according to the reopening plan. District officials say that arrangement will help ensure students receive the mandated amount of real-time instruction and could build connections between students.

To do that, teachers could assign work to both groups at the same time or ask the groups to trade off between real-time instruction and independent learning.

This would be Chicago’s first time using simultaneous instruction, but the approach is already in place in classrooms around the country, and has been one solution to the COVID-19 induced staffing crunch.

But teachers have also said the logistical juggling the approach requires makes their quality of instruction is lower.

The district’s safety plan includes pods, face coverings, and daily screenings

Charter and child care programs that have offered some form of child care this fall say clear and consistent protocols around symptom screenings and mask wearing are essential for a safe reopening.

The reopening plan says students and staff will take daily symptom screeners as well as temperature checks for anyone entering the building. They’ll also be given face masks that they’ll be expected to wear at all times unless eating. In-person students will be structured into pods along with their educators, which will minimize interaction between different groups of students. The district has also invested millions in sanitizer, soap, and disinfectant sprays.

The school district has hired staff to do contact tracing District officials are tracking COVID-19 cases at schools at cps.edu/reopening2020. They also plan to hire 400 additional custodians by the time all grades return, according to the plan.

The district plans to randomly test employees for COVID-19: The city will provide the district with 30,000 rapid tests, for employees interacting directly with students who are not showing symptoms of the illness. If employees test positive, they will quarantine and officials will trace their contacts with members of school communities.

Pre-K and PE programs will take special precautions

Some teachers who work with the pre-kindergarten and cluster program students say their work often makes it difficult to socially distance.

In pre-K classrooms, teachers will be expected to clean all materials and toys between use, and, where possible, students will be assigned personal cubbies, materials, and cots.

Educators who teach art, PE or library studies in-person will interact with a minimum of ten pods or only work with certain groups of students each quarter. Those teachers will likely visit classroom pods to minimize the movement of students through the school.

There are still a few things that could stand in the way of reopening.

The first, and most important, is whether Chicago’s COVID-19 rates will be at a threshold that allows for reopening. Chicago’s rolling seven-day positivity rate is nearly 13%, and officials are worried there could be a spike after the holidays.

The district will consider reopening this winter against a new metric: While officials had earlier cited daily case counts and rolling positivity rates, the district now says it will examine “case doubling time” — the number of days it takes newly diagnosed cases to double.

Dr. Marielle Fricchione, with the Chicago Department of Public Health, said recently if the city is at last week’s case doubling time of 12 days in January, the district will put its reopening plans on hold until that metric hits 18 days.

The plan hinges on a turnaround in the recent sharp spike in coronavirus cases and the district’s ability to enlist enough educators to work in person. About 42% of pre-kindergarten and special education cluster program teachers reported in October that they are willing to return without accommodations.

The city’s teachers union, which has been critical of any plans to reopen school buildings, particularly amid climbing COVID-19 rates, could also be an obstacle. The union has said the district has failed to negotiate with teachers, and weighed strike action ahead of a planned reopening this fall.

Teachers are expected to submit their intent-to-return forms by Dec. 14 and those returning to classrooms will return to buildings Jan. 4.

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