Chicago Public Schools will resume in-person classes in January as more suburban districts announce they will revert to remote learning amid COVID-19 surge

Karen Ann Cullotta, Chicago Tribune
·7 min read

Chicago Public Schools has announced that it will continue to provide classes through remote learning until after the winter break, but then plans to begin bringing students back on Jan. 11.

The news came down just after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Tuesday that he is imposing more restrictions to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus — but reiterated that he’s leaving decision about schools to local districts.

CPS’ announcement also coincides with decisions by several suburban district to revert to remote learning as COVID-19 cases surge in Illinois.

CPS, which has been delivering lessons remote since Pritzker shut down schools statewide in March, said Tuesday afternoon that it will begin bringing pre-kindergarten and some special education students back for in-person classes on Jan. 11.

Other students in kindergarten through eighth grade are scheduled to return to schools on Feb. 1. A return date for high school is still under consideration, officials said. Classes will start with a hybrid model that combines in-person and remote learning.

“While the district is prepared to safely offer in-person learning at this time — consistent with schools across the city and country, including at private and parochial schools in Chicago that have seen low incidence of school-based transmission — beginning in-person instruction in January will minimize disruptions as students transition back to schools while allowing students to quarantine following the holidays,” officials said in their announcement.

They also noted, however, that with the governor’s Tuesday declaration, CPS “will suspend all high school sports beginning Friday,” including sports like bowling, cheer, dance and boys swimming and diving that were set to move forward this winter.

Other districts in the Chicago region that did already reopen schools are in many cases reverting to remote learning, though.

Among the latest are Palatine-based Township High School District 211 and Community Consolidated School District 15, which collectively enroll a total of roughly 24,000 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, are both taking an “adaptive pause" from classroom instruction this week, officials said in recent parent letters.

The resumption of remote learning for all District 211 students started on Monday, and for District 15 will begin on Wednesday, officials said.

In Elgin-based School District Unit 46, the 37,000 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade enrolled are also slated to remain or return to a strictly distance learning format from Nov. 23 through at least Dec. 4, Superintendent Tony Sanders said in a Monday parent letter.

The three northwest suburban school districts join a rapidly growing list of districts across suburban Chicago that have stopped in-person classroom instruction this month in the wake of the rapidly escalating numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

“I know this decision will come with mixed feedback from our parents, staff and the larger community, with some in support of the plan and others against it," District 15 Superintendent Laurie Heinz said in a Nov. 15 parent letter.

“I certainly understand the challenges that working parents will face who rely on our schools for childcare and the overall stressors of fully remote learning,” Heinz said. “Navigating educational plans during the ups and downs of this pandemic has come with no ‘right’ answers or perfect solutions. In the end, I have to make decisions based upon the health and safety of everyone in our buildings, both students and adults.”

Heinz said that the decision to pause in-person instruction was also prompted by the Cook County Department of Public Health stay-at-home advisory that went into effect on Monday, and will last at least 30 days.

“We have heard from many staff members and parents (who) do not feel safe remaining in school during this stay-at-home advisory period,” Heinz said, adding that a district survey this month found that 80% of District 15 staff was in favor moving to remote learning for students.

“Our staff has worked hard during this trying time, and they are becoming increasingly concerned for their own safety due to the recent surge in positivity rates and health department advisory,” Heinz said.

Still, despite the switch to remote learning for all students, the district’s 20 school buildings will remain open, and some teachers will be delivering online lessons from their classrooms, a spokeswoman from the district said on Tuesday.

In District 211, also based in Palatine, Superintendent Lisa Small acknowledged that "being in-person with our students is where our best work is done.”

But with the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in the community, and with guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Cook County Department of Public Health, Small said the district decided to take an adaptive pause from Monday through Dec. 4.

A return to the district’s hybrid learning plan, including in-person instruction, is slated to begin on Dec. 7, Small said.

“While our school-based transmission rates are minimal, the number of students and staff members diagnosed with COVID-19 and the number of individuals needing to quarantine because of COVID-like symptoms has significantly increased during the month of November,” Small said.

In total, 64 students and 25 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 since Nov. 1, a district spokesman said on Tuesday.

The spokesman said District 211 teachers will have a choice to either work remotely or come to school during the 3-week adaptive pause, adding that those, “who can do their job remotely, have the choice to do so, but those who cannot are to report to work.”

Indeed, with the COVID-19 rates spiking across suburban Chicago, a burgeoning number of school districts in the collar counties are also returning to or continuing remote instruction this month, including West Aurora District 129; Lake Zurich District 95; Wheaton District 200 and Naperville District 203.

Yet despite the growing number of schools pausing in-person instruction this month, officials at several suburban school districts, including Winnetka School District 36, Wilmette School District 39, Arlington Heights School District 25 and Township High School District 214, say they have no immediate plans to stop in-person instruction in the coming weeks.

On the contrary, the District 25 school board last week passed a plan directing Superintendent Lori Bein to begin a transition for students to return to a full in-person learning model, with a remote option for families who are not comfortable with their students returning to the classroom, on Jan. 19, if the required metrics and safeguards are met, according to a recent parent letter.

In Winnetka School District 36, where officials have budgeted around $2.3 million for COVID-19-related expenses — roughly $1,400 per student — Superintendent Trisha Kocanda said in a parent letter last week that while families should remain vigilant about following safety guidelines, the district remains, “committed to making sure our students benefit from in-person learning for as long as possible.”

“While we are noticing a recent increase in the metrics related to new case counts and positivity rates, our schools continue to provide safe, quality, in-person learning, and we want to keep it this way as long as we can,” Kocanda said.

At neighboring New Trier High School, which after a recent pause, resumed in-person instruction for students at its Winnetka and Northfield campuses last week, Superintendent Paul Sally said in a Nov. 14 parent letter that officials are, “especially pleased at the very high participation in the first week of our COVID-19 saliva screening program.”

The $1.3 million program has thus far identified 15 presumptive positive cases among 1,920 students and staff screened, Sally said.

In regards to the county’s stay-at-home advisory to help curb the spread of COVID-19, Sally said attending school is considered “an essential activity,” adding that the high school plans to continue its 25% hybrid schedule for students this week, “following our existing strict safety protocols.”

Officials with one of the state’s largest teachers unions on Monday called on Pritzker to close school buildings because of the soaring COVID-19 cases across the state and to come up with a clear metric for when it’s safe to reopen.

But the governor said Tuesday he will “continue to rely on local school boards to apply the right approach here.”

kcullotta@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @kcullotta

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