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With campuses closed to fight coronavirus, Chicago schools face a real gap in conducting virtual learning

First there was the Friday announcement that schools were closing. Then came the mad scramble for teachers to assemble assignments and webpage links to send home with students in a bid to keep instruction going after today’s closures. 

Now, reality has set in that for at least two weeks, students and families will be at the helm of learning.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s decision to shutter all Illinois schools through March 31 pushed to the forefront questions that had loomed for weeks: Are the state’s schools ready to keep up with student learning remotely? Also, would a shift to online classes widen resource disparities among Chicago schools and between that district and others in more affluent communities in the state? Depending on how long the closures remain in place, such gaps could have a measurable effect on student learning. 

Across Illinois, some educators have come up with ambitious goals to harness digital tools to replicate the classroom experience as closely as possible. Others have had more modest expectations, recognizing limitations on students’ access to the internet and computers.  

“Even though this is uncharted territory, we teachers are absolutely doing our best to help students continue to learn,” said Alex Parker, a fourth grade teacher in the La Grange district. 

In Chicago, district leaders have acknowledged that schools are not prepared for a seamless shift to e-learning, but the district worked to prepare digital and hard-copy enrichment resources for students. For that district, the weeks with shuttered schools ahead come on the heels of the disruption of an 11-day teacher strike earlier this school year.

Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson, speaking at a press conference Monday, said many — but not all — district schools have laptops and other devices students can take home during the closure. She said she has reached out to the district’s philanthropic partners to try to ensure access to a device for each student — not just during the coronavirus closures but permanently. 

Jackson has been blunt: The district does not have the infrastructure to roll out a robust remote learning plan. The focus is on enrichment, not on any full-blown effort to shift classroom business as usual onto the internet. In keeping with state guidelines, teachers will not grade assignments.

“We’re not set up where we can replicate an entire student day through an online system,” Jackson said last week.

Some educators suggested a scaled-back plan that takes into account disparate access to resources makes sense. 

Charity Freeman, a computer science teacher at Chicago’s selective enrollment Lane Tech College Prep High School, said each student in her computer science classes has a device and access to the internet. But she knows that is certainly not a case for each of the district’s more than 300,000 students. It’s not even the case for all students at Lane Tech. 

“There is no way that we could in good conscience guarantee that every student will have access to the same education when they leave the buildings,” she said. 

Freeman said she gave students the assignments she would have if the school hadn’t closed — but they won’t be due until a week or two after classes resume. She told her seniors that these days away from the classroom will be a preview of college life and a chance to practice the discipline it requires. When it comes to freshmen, she said, “I have no faith in them to resist distractions when they are at home. I am not competing with Netflix and Fortnite — no way.”

At Sullivan High School, a Rogers Park neighborhood school with a large refugee population, all students have a Chromebook they receive at the start of the year and can take home, Principal Chad Adams said.

Broadband internet access, however, is more of a challenge. Adams said teachers are encouraging students to use hot spots on their phones, some of which were provided by a program the school runs. “Families prioritize communication with each other and that means that most families have phones,” he said. 

A survey of 600 teachers and administrators conducted by the Illinois State Board of Education over the weekend found that almost two-thirds of educators in the state said their districts were not prepared to conduct remote learning.

Still, some suburban Illinois districts are steps ahead. 

Each student in teacher Parker’s classroom at Cossitt Avenue Elementary in the La Grange district receives a Chromebook at the start of the school year and has a Gmail account set up. 

The roughly 3,000-student district in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago made the decision to shift to remote learning before Pritzker announced the statewide closures. Parker said he feels ready. 

He and colleagues huddled to make an e-learning plan as a team. They’ll use Google Classroom to field student questions about lessons in real time and Google Meet to host classes via videoconference. They’ll also tap existing district subscriptions to educational sites such as BrainPOP and CultureGrams.

“I am actually enthusiastic about where we are at,” he said. 

Some students voiced concern about getting a hold of Parker away from the classroom, but he reassured them he would remain just as accessible in cyberspace. He said the rapport they have built and the clear classroom expectations around which they rallied will help a lot. 

“This would have been much harder back in September or October,” Parker said.  

The Chicago district’s Office of Teaching and Learning prepared activity packets for each grade, which parents can download at cps.edu/enrichmentresources. The district said educators sent home packets with learning and enrichment resources for students, in both hard copy and digital formats. 

But at a Chicago Teachers Union digital town hall on Sunday night, teachers expressed concern about feeling pressed to quickly prepare materials. Pritzker announced the school closures Friday evening, giving teachers little time to prepare enrichment activities and contact plans for students by Tuesday’s closures. 

Emily, one of the teachers on the call, who did not say her full name or at which school she teaches, said she worries about continuing to serve students with disabilities. She was unsure about how to work with students with individualized education plans remotely, and that her efforts could violate federal laws around support for students with disabilities. 

District guidelines do not allow communicating with students via their personal cell phones, email or social media accounts. Students can communicate with schools using their school email accounts or through parent accounts.

Adams, the principal, also questioned whether it was reasonable to expect a high level of productivity from teachers, who themselves might be caring for children or elderly family members while at home.

“I’m trying to be very measured with their time,” said Adams, who expects to be coordinating food delivery at the school, but also needs to consider care for his fifth-grade child. “It is a complex thing that is different for each person and each situation.” 

Freeman said some of her freshmen have already pleasantly surprised her by peppering her with questions about their assignments. She says she is deeply aware and concerned about the disparities with other districts e-learning could magnify. 

But she said, “Our students are used to a hussle. Doing the best you can with the cards you are dealt — that’s the experience of being a young person in the city of Chicago.”