Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot defended the decision to bring Chicago Public Schools students back to classrooms beginning next year even as coronavirus cases continue to spike, prompting new mitigations across the state.
"We're obviously doing everything we can to keep every resident safe and of course, that includes our young people," Lightfoot said. "And we have taken a significant amount of steps over these last few months to make sure that the protections on a classroom-by-classroom basis are there so that when it's appropriate for students to return, that they're going to be returning to classrooms and to school buildings that have the highest level of protections against COVID-19 that we can possibly muster."
Chicago Public Schools on Tuesday announced the district plans to begin bringing students back for in-person learning starting in January.
At the same time, New York City schools, the nation's largest system, will switch all-remote Thursday after hitting his 3 percent rolling positivity rate threshold.
Lightfoot said the decision "is truly a matter of equity."
"We know that remote work works well for some, where there is an adult in the home that can help the student with the basic logging on answering any questions helps support the classroom learning, but also the homework that has to be done," she said. "Unfortunately, that is not the experience of some of our children. And for some of our children, particularly our youngest learners, and also our kids with special needs, school is more than just the place where they go and learn reading and writing and arithmetic. School is a place where they get social emotional learning where they bond with their peers, and their teachers where they get other supports, like an a, an IEP, an aid that helps them with their learning where they get health care in the school system. So for those students, you cannot replicate those kinds of crucial in person support by looking at a zoom screen, it's just not going to happen. And so we need to make sure that consistent with the public health mandates that we are building a pathway for those kids to get back into the classroom. And obviously, obviously, there's been a lot of conversation with everybody in the school environment, teachers building principals, staff, that goes into this decision. But fundamentally, we cannot afford to have those students fall behind."
Lightfoot said parents will have the option to opt out of in-person instruction.
Officials said students will learn remotely through the end of 2020 but pre-k and students in intensive and "moderate cluster classrooms" will begin in-person instruction starting on Jan. 11. Students in grades K-8 will resume in-person learning on Feb. 1.
The district cited "low incidence of school-based transmission at schools across the country, including private and parochial schools in Chicago."
High school students will continue to participate in remote learning and the district will evaluate in-person learning options for those students in 2021, officials said.
"We're going to start obviously, gradually, in the way that CPS announced [Tuesday], and we'll look at high school students in the New Year," Lightfoot said.
The district noted that while all of Illinois will soon be under Tier 3 mitigations imposed by the state due to a rising number of cases and hospitalizations, the new restrictions do not force schools in the state to close and leave the decision up to each individual district.
“It’s our moral imperative to do everything in our power to safely open schools beginning with our youngest and highest-needs learners, and the decision to re-open in January will ensure that Black and Latinx families — many of whom are essential workers and cannot ensure their children are fully supported through remote learning — have more equitable access to instruction this year,” CPS CEO Dr. Janice Jackson said in a statement. “While we are eager to open our doors as soon as possible, beginning in-person learning in January is the right decision because it will minimize learning disruption from planned breaks and allow time for students and staff to limit activity prior to resuming in-person learning.”
While classrooms will resume in January, CPS did suspend all high school sports beginning Friday.
"A limited group of sports — bowling, cheer, dance and boy’s swimming and diving —were previously permitted to move forward this winter, and these sports will remain suspended until the state determines they can move forward," the district said.
The plan follows one released by the district earlier in the fall, following a phased reopening model.
The district plans to reach out to parents and staff of students in other grades later this year to gauge their interest in their students returning to the classroom.
The district noted that parents will have the option to opt out at any time, but those who choose remote learning will not be able to opt-in to in-person instruction until a later date.