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CPS to bring back elementary students Feb. 1

Some CPS special ed and pre-k students will return to school starting in January, while others will come back the following month, officials told principals Tuesday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The decision comes amid increasing public health uncertainty as the city’s spread of COVID-19 infections reaches an all-time high.

In the most concrete move yet to restart traditional schooling after what will have been an unprecedented, nearly yearlong interruption, Chicago Public Schools officials are planning to resume in-person classes for preschoolers and some special education students in January and all elementary school students at the start of February, the district announced Tuesday.

The decision comes amid increasing public health uncertainty as the city’s spread of COVID-19 infections reaches an all-time high and the school system faces heavy scrutiny from anxious teachers and parents. Officials relayed their plans to principals on a conference call Tuesday that was first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times. CPS made its plans public later in the afternoon.

Employing a phased-in return that initially was expected as soon as November, the district said it plans to bring back preschool students and children in special education cluster programs Jan. 11 for daily instruction, and all other kindergarten through eighth grade students Feb. 1 for part-time classroom, part-time remote learning. Pre-K and cluster staff will go back to work Jan. 4, and elementary school teachers will return Jan. 25.

High school students will continue remote learning, and the district will consider whether to bring them back later in the spring.

“While remote learning has allowed many of our students to continue their studies over the past eight months, the reality is that our Black and Latinx students, our youngest students and highest-need learners have not been equitably served,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement. “The decision to begin in-person learning this January will restore their access to high-quality instruction and is the result of balancing our commitment to equity with our current public health situation.”

Families will have the option to continue remote learning. CPS plans to send an opt-in form Nov. 23, and the deadline for students to let the district know whether they’ll attend in-person classes will be Dec. 7, sources said.

School administrators will find out the following week how many of their students have decided to return to school. Parents who choose in-person learning can change their decision to remote learning at any time, while parents who choose remote learning won’t be able to opt-in to in-person instruction until a later time so the schools can effectively plan.

As of this week, about 5,600 out of an eligible 16,700 preschool and special education cluster students, around 34%, had opted in to in-person learning through an earlier form sent last month — fewer than officials had expected, CPS said. Meanwhile about 1,900 of 6,800 pre-K and cluster staffers, 28%, requested accommodations or leaves of absence.

While Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson had hoped to reopen schools sooner, and city health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said as recently as last week she remained confident students and staff can be kept safe at schools, the raging pandemic has left families and teachers worried for their health and at least slightly delayed their plans.

Chicago’s seven-day average test positivity stood at 16% Tuesday, the highest since mid-May when the first stage of the pandemic had forced unprecedented school closures and a stay-at-home order. The average daily caseload grew to 2,296, up 31% since last week.

CPS and Arwady offered contrasting explanations for why the first return date isn’t sooner than two months from now.

The mayor and CPS officials stressed in their announcement the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases played no role in their decision, and that CPS is waiting until January because that will “allow students to quarantine following the holidays and because beginning class during the disruptions posed by the holidays would not be conducive to the needs of young children who will need to adapt to a consistent, new routine.”

Arwady, meanwhile, said the city is “in the midst of this second surge right now, and there’s no doubt the trends we see are very concerning.” Setting a reopening threshold for the first time in months, Arwady said students could return once cases in the city are doubling every 18 days. Right now they’re doubling every 12 days, which indicates rapid spread.

“We want to get to a more stable place with community spread before bringing students and staff back to school,” she said. “Once we do see more stability, even if case rates remain relatively high, I’m confident in-person learning can work and be safely done.”

While CPS classes are not being held in-person, a district database shows there were 87 confirmed cases among adults that forced at least partial interruptions at the district’s 500-plus schools last week, the most recent available. School clerks and tech coordinators have been reporting to work in-person the entire school year.

The Chicago Teachers Union has strongly opposed reopening schools while infections spread and on Tuesday lambasted the mayor’s “worst possible leadership at the worst possible time.”

“Today’s announcement appears to be based on the mayor’s political agenda, because it sure isn’t based on science,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement. “Just unilaterally picking an arbitrary date in the future and hoping everything works out is a recipe for disaster.”

The union, unhappy with the state of negotiations over a potential reopening, asked earlier this month for a mediator to step into talks with the district, which the CTU accused of proceeding with its plans without asking teachers’ input. CPS only agreed to mediation over issues impacted by a return to school but not over its actual decision when and how to reopen.

“You don’t make decisions about somebody’s else’s children in back rooms,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said. “You need stakeholder input, family buy-in to give parents confidence and a uniform, collaborative plan to make it work.”

An independent arbitrator ruled in early October that CPS has not proven its schools are safe for workers and ordered the district to allow its clerks and tech coordinators to work remotely whenever possible. CPS officials have refused to follow that ruling, and those workers have kept reporting to school buildings.

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