Chicago Public Schools to bring pre-K and special-needs children back to school

CHICAGO — The Chicago Teachers Union is critical of a proposal by Chicago Public School officials to bring some students back into classrooms next month — and union representatives are speaking out.

In the plan released Friday, CPS says pre-kindergarten and many special education students will return to the classroom by the end of December. All other students will continue remote learning when the second quarter starts next month.

“It is evident that online learning is not working for many of our students, and we must explore every possible opportunity to safely bring students back to school,” CPS officials said in a letter to parents that was posted on its web site.

CPS did not indicate a specific date of when it would start phasing back to in-person instruction for pre-k and special ed children. The district added that it hopes more grades would return to the classroom as early as January.

As part of the plan, CPS and CDPH will be closely monitoring the evolving public health environment and a final decision on reopening school buildings will be made closer to the start of the second quarter.

“Though remote learning has allowed a great number of our students to safely continue learning in light of COVID-19, the fact of the matter is that it has also exacerbated social and economic inequities—preventing our youngest students, cluster program students and students of color from getting the high-quality education they deserve,” said Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

On Oct. 21, the district will send all parents and guardians of pre-k and special ed students an intent form to indicate whether they would feel comfortable sending their children to school. Parents will be asked to complete the form by Oct. 28 and parents will maintain the option to opt out at any time. Due to the small class sizes for all pre-k and most cluster classrooms, all pre-k students would be able to attend school daily, and most students enrolled in cluster programs would be able to attend school daily, with some cluster classrooms implementing hybrid learning depending on the number of students who opt-in. In-person learning would take place in alignment with the stringent health processes outlined in the district’s reopening framework, as well as additional measures.

Due to the stability of the public health situation in Chicago and the district’s work with Dr. Arwady and CDPH to develop a comprehensive health and safety plan aligned to state and federal guidelines, we are in a position to consider safely bringing students back to the classrooms — where they learn best. To protect anyone in a school building, the district has committed to the following measures:

  • Face Coverings: Cloth face coverings will be provided to all staff and students and required at all times.
  • Pods: Students and educators will be grouped into stable pods or small class sizes to minimize exposure to other students, allow for social distancing in classrooms, and support contact tracing
  • Daily Screenings: Temperature checks, hand washing, and daily symptom screenings are required before students enter the classroom.
  • Testing: To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the district will ensure that any student or staff member who is symptomatic or a close contact of someone who tested positive has access to a free COVID-19 test. 
  • Contact Tracing: To help reduce the transmission of COVID-19, CPS has hired dedicated staff to support the intake of cases and provide proper notification. CPS will work in coordination with CDPH to ensure that those identified as close contacts have rapid contact tracing and are connected to city resources such as monitoring and testing.   
  • Additional Custodians: To ensure comprehensive cleaning protocols are completed every day, the district is hiring 400 additional custodians.
  • Sanitizer and Soap: The district invested over $3.5 million to secure over 50,000 hand sanitizer dispensers in all high-traffic areas and soap dispensers to support regular hand washing and sanitizing.
  • Disinfectant Wipes: The district allocated over $2 million to purchase 86,000 containers of EPA approved disinfectant wipes for classrooms, offices and other high-touch areas.
  • Hospital-Grade Disinfectant Sprayers: Every CPS school has a hospital-grade mister spray unit that will evenly apply EPA-approved disinfectant for maximum disinfection.
  • Community Notifications: CPS adopted consistent procedures and community notification protocols developed by CDPH to respond to any confirmed cases of COVID-19. To ensure public awareness, the district is tracking confirmed COVID cases at cps.edu/school-reopening-2020.
  • Sneeze Guards and Signage: All schools installed sneeze guards and other physical barriers to protect staff when visitors arrive, and posted signage throughout school facilities to emphasize new policies and procedures.

Ensuring Proper Ventilation in Every Classroom
In addition to the measures outlined in the district’s reopening framework, CPS has undertaken a multi-faceted assessment to ensure that schools are properly ventilated in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) standards.

The Chicago Teachers Union said it would fight the plan that the union’s attorney Thad Goodchild called “ill-timed, reckless and illegal.” Not only do statistics show the coronavirus pandemic is worsening, the union contends, but the district and Lightfoot have not done nearly enough or invested sufficient money to make sure the school buildings are safe.

“Special education students — children who are among the school district’s most medically vulnerable students — will be learning in-person in November, along with the District’s littlest learners,” according to a statement from the union. “That move defies the science and puts thousands of students, family members and educators at risk from the deadly pandemic.”

CPS CEO Janice Jackson and the city’s public health commissioner will hold a news conference Friday afternoon to discuss the district’s plans for phased-in classroom learning for some.