Chicago Public Schools needs a remote-learning plan for all high-school students first quarter

Every day of this pandemic, the question I ask myself is, “What matters today?”  As Chicago Public Schools inches much too slowly to make a decision about how the school year will start, the answer to that question about what matters is simple: our health.

The last four-and-a-half months have proven to be a complex time draining many CPS families of resources and emotional energy.  So CPS cannot go forward with a plan for high schools that will make the situation more complex for students, families, and staff.

While the CPS plan to provide a hybrid in-person and remote model for 9th and 10th graders might be well intentioned (as freshmen need a strong transition and tenth graders can fall into the sophomore slump), the district’s hybrid plan proves impossible to carry out.

Chicago high schools can only socially distance according to the architectural layout of their classrooms, hallways, and lunchrooms--not including the challenges that hot fall days bring to schools without dependable A/C.  Setting up pods in high schools isn’t practical if students stick to their schedules. One administrator I spoke with said the school would have 70-80 pods of ninth and tenth graders, requiring more teachers than are available.

Administrators should not have to devote so much time to developing a plan that might not be carried out and whose consequences can prove devastating.

Instead, administrators’ and teachers’ efforts in August should focus on planning for meaningful and manageable learning experiences in the fall.  We should not have to figure out how to police the hallways and classrooms for adherence to social distancing measures.

Look--I hated remote learning.

Each day I spent working with students on Google Meets, recording lessons for students to complete at a convenient time, grading assignments that came in at all times regardless of any deadlines, providing written and audio feedback, reaching out to students who did not show up, and parenting my own teen and pre-teen left me mentally exhausted and crabby as hell.

But remote learning for all high-school students will secure what’s most important: our health.

Good teaching and learning does not include sitting at desks six feet apart, listening to lectures, passing out worksheets, taking tests, and reading silently.  Good teaching involves engaging with materials in a hands-on way, interacting with others, sharing ideas, exchanging drafts, solving problems.  Even if students show up in person, their interactions with materials, teachers, and peers will be too limited to be meaningful.

Good teaching cannot happen in classrooms with students wearing masks who cannot be heard easily or whose facial expressions cannot be read to determine the impact of the lesson or the vibe of the class.  And speaking to a group of people with a mask on proves difficult and uncomfortable.

On a hot June day, I went to my high school to pick up a few things.  The school building broiled without dependable A/C.  I remembered the slim stairwells.  While wearing my mask, I looked around my room, at the nine tables where students sit facing each other.  I stood at the board in the heat.  I said something in my teacher voice, trying to make my words reach the back wall.

Then realized, “Oh hell nah! This ain’t gonna work!”

During fourth quarter of the last school year, CPS schools distributed about 61,000 computers.  The district also established Chicago Connected, a program to provide free, high-speed internet service to about 100,000 CPS students.  These resources cannot go to waste.

CPS needs to decide this week to keep high-school instruction remote and develop a plan to provide professional development to staff during August so we are prepared for our new reality.

The district’s plan should include ways to bring small groups of students into the school building if they need additional support: students with Individualized Education Plans, English learners, academically struggling students, students with significant social-emotional issues, and students without secure housing.

By week six of first quarter, the district can decide what to do about second quarter.

The learning packets CPS developed during last school year's remote learning included meaningful reading selections for high-school students.  But the reflection and writing assignments accompanying them lacked complexity and depth.  This is where resources should be dedicated now--ensuring high-quality alternatives to online learning.

Furthermore, CPS needs a streamlined way to support schools so they can reach out to students who do not participate in remote learning--or who disappear.  Again, this needs to be figured out now--not two days before school starts.

We cannot risk outbreaks of COVID-19 in schools.  We cannot use students as guinea pigs to see what will happen.  We cannot risk the health of staff simply because political pressure at the national or local level demands kids go back to school.  According to WBEZ, “At a July 27 Chicago Public Schools virtual community meeting, 65% of the people who responded to a poll said they were either ‘not comfortable at all’ or ‘somewhat not comfortable’ with the school district’s reopening plan.”

Evanston, Oak Park, and Plainfield districts already decided to go remote.

What’s making this decision so difficult for CPS?

Going remote, of course, means we--as teachers--need to step up our game.  Assigning Youtube videos and organizing casual Google Meets conversations isn’t going to cut it. Our students deserve better.  Many of us figured out ways to provide meaningful and manageable learning experiences.  We need to build on that--not go in a new direction.

Plus, if we are a data-driven district, we need to follow the data.

Since Chicago entered phase 4 of the 5-phase COVID-19 Restore Illinois plan, the city is seeing a rise in young people ages 18-29 testing positive for the virus.

Based on a New York Times article, a study of 65,000 people in South Korea found that people between the ages of 10 and 19 can spread the virus as easily as adults do.

Today, Governor Pritzker released restrictions on school sports because of the COVID-19 risks.  

Good teachers know that good learning cannot happen if students feel emotionally uncomfortable.  As good teachers, we cannot do our job well if we are not emotionally well.  A remote learning plan for high-schools during first quarter allows more opportunities for teachers to support students academically and emotionally during these difficult times.

Back in March, one parent I spoke with shared the difficult economic times their family faced.  But the parent told me holding back tears, “As long as we have our health, we’ll be fine.”

During these difficult times, we cannot support a CPS back-to-school plan that risks the one thing that should matter the most.

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