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Chicago will extend school into summer for students at risk of failing. But can those students log on?

Chicago school board and staff members met in a regular meeting May 27, 2020,
Chicago school board and staff members met in a regular meeting May 27, 2020, to discuss summer school, future plans, and other issues.
Yana Kunichoff/Chalkbeat

Chicago students who received an incomplete in math or English will be required to take summer school this year, but school board members worry they will still face the same barriers that kept them from finishing their classes.

“If summer students are in the category of non-digital today, what are we going to do to reach them and engage them to enroll?” board member Lucino Sotelo asked during Wednesday’s virtual board of education meeting.

Recent figures released by the district showed that in the week of May 11, 15% of students were not in touch with their schools. The reasons are not clear, but a lack of internet access, device sharing with siblings, family tragedy, housing instability, and the stress of the pandemic have all been said to impact student engagement.

With summer school, the district has another chance to re-engage those students. But school leaders questioned by board members said they were at a loss for how to do much more than they are doing already.

Chicago has distributed more than 100,000 tech devices to students, and it has set up hot spots for homeless students and those in temporarily living situations. But neither the city nor the school district have announced a broader plan to expand Wi-Fi services. According to an April report, an estimated one in five Chicago students lacked broadband access.

“I cannot say that remote learning in the summer is going to all of the sudden miraculously be new and improved in comparison to what is happening today,” Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade said. “But we have an obligation to try and open up opportunities for students in the summer.”

McDade said the district would survey students at registration about their internet connectivity and device access, and then would double down on solving those problems. That might be easier for summer with a smaller group of students, which board members estimated numbered 13,000 students, than during the school year.

With remote learning likely to continue into the fall, schools chief Janice Jackson said the district has put together a remote learning task force and is considering staggered school days for students’ return to campuses, along with other options.

Board President Miguel Del Valle said it wasn’t enough to give students devices, but that the district must ensure internet connectivity.

Comcast offers a low-cost internet program with 60 days of free internet, but some advocates, including Del Valle, have said that the deal doesn’t last long enough to meet the demands of months of learning.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Del Valle raised concerns that undocumented families are reluctant to sign up for the program, which relies on use of public assistance programs such as food stamps to determine eligibility. He said federal practices that make it harder for immigrants who use such programs to obtain citizenship would discourage them from coming forth.

The Chicago Teachers Union, in a press release published after the board meeting, said that the district must address families’ economic hardship.

“Our first goal must be to take care of students and their families — their material, emotional, psychological and educational needs — and plan for a future that will likely include at least intermittent remote learning,” the union’s statement said.

Along with remote learning, the school district will offer food pickup and delivery during the summer. School officials said the district will provide teachers with professional development in the summer and fall.

Since the coronavirus shut down school buildings in March, the district has spent $44 million to address pandemic needs, including devices, increased pay for frontline staff, and reimbursements for cancelled spring-break school-related travel for students, Chief Operating Officer Arne Rivera said Wednesday.

Mila Koumpilova contributed reporting.

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