Among the factors Chicago Public Schools is weighing when deciding whether to reopen school buildings: the experience of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s 150-plus campuses, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Tuesday.
The mayor, who oversees public schools in Chicago and appoints the schools chief and board, is expected to make the final call about reopening campuses along with city health officials. Chicago started the school year virtually three weeks ago after initially planning to begin the year with a hybrid schedule.
Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Chicago, which is the state’s largest private school operator with 70,000 students last spring, reopened its campuses in late August. Schools are offering full-day instruction — some larger campuses have hybrid schedules where students go a few days a week — and families have the option of choosing all-virtual instruction.
“We haven’t made a decision yet on whether (reopening) is going to be possible,” Lightfoot said. “We’re following very closely the experience of Archdiocese schools, many of which have been in-person learning five days a week or in a hybrid model that includes in-person learning. There’s a lot we can learn from their experience. They are in many of the same neighborhoods where CPS schools are.”
The mayor, who stressed a decision about schools was coming “relatively soon,” spoke Tuesday night at a Lens on Lightfoot virtual town hall organized by the Triibe and six other independent newsrooms, including Chalkbeat Chicago.
In one week this month, the Archdiocese reported 16 positive COVID-19 cases among its students and staff, which is considerably less than 1% of its system, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The archdiocese declined requests to provide a full accounting for cases since the start of school, the paper said.
At least one campus, St. Rita of Cascia High School on the city’s Southwest Side, temporarily shifted to virtual learning after two students tested positive in late August. The campus has since reopened.
Students are divided into cohorts and stay in those same small groups each day. The reopening plan also requires students and educators to wear masks and undergo temperature checks each morning before entering buildings.
The Archdiocese also published an infection protocol guide that details what happens if students or educators test positive. The plan includes contact tracing.
“There are things we can learn from them. They seem to have done a really good job keeping their school community safe,” Lightfoot said.
As virtual learning progresses, Chicago parents have begun pressuring the mayor and school district to make a decision about whether students will return to campuses in November, at the start of the second quarter. The school district has floated a plan to bring some special education students back earlier.
The mayor also said the city had made progress in closing the digital divide that has complicated the shift to virtual learning. This summer, Chicago announced a plan to provide free internet for up to four years for 60,000 households representing 100,000 students. As of Tuesday, the city had signed up 38,000 students, slightly more than a third of the goal, Lightfoot said.
She acknowledged the challenges of reaching some families, citing some households’ outstanding debt as one obstacle slowing sign-ups. “We’re working through those issues,” she said. “We’ve made significant progress in a short amount of time.”
“Part of the difficulty is that, even though it is free, it’s about making sure families feel safe signing up,” she added. “We’re really leaning into building up principals where we are seeing low connectivity among students, making sure parents know this option is available, and providing the technical assistance they may need so they can get registered and we can get them connected.”