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Timeline: CPS's Early Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Analysis by Giovanni Velez |  @RedLineProject | Posted: Friday, May 7, 2021

In a pandemic that has nearly impacted 32.3 million people in the United States alone, school districts like Chicago Public Schools have done their best to navigate these extraordinary times. 

On March 12, six days after James Santiago’s high school closed down, Gov. JB Pritzker announced a ban on all large gatherings of 1,000 people or more in the state. The ban originally was supposed to be in effect until May 1.

The next day, at 4 p.m., Pritzker ordered the closure of all Illinois schools, including CPS. Originally schools were scheduled to reopen on March 31.

“I was just shocked,” said Santiago, a student who attends Vaughn Occupational High School. “I had just come home from school and all of a sudden, a couple of hours later, I learned that they closed it down. I was just there and not knowing whether I caught it or not, that was scary.”

Interactive timeline: CPS’ COVID-19 response

Anna Pavichevich, the principal of Amundsen High School, explained how she learned about the school closures and the pressure administrators were under early on in the pandemic.

“We heard on the news like everybody else did,” she said. “When we prepared staff, we told them [to] take everything home, [as] if you're not coming back for the rest of the year.” 

On March 30, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, CPS, and CCC unveiled a new remote learning plan for students. 

Kristi Eilers, assistant principal of Amundsen High School, highlighted the key role administrators played in communicating the new remote learning plan to their teachers.

“CPS started giving us a bunch of documentation and guidance,” she said. “We read through it, we dissected it, we've highlighted and annotated it. And then we prepare teachers by then turning it into a PowerPoint.”

Once remote learning started on April 13, many students struggled with the transition.

“It was hard to do all [of] this on a computer,” said Clarissa Delgado, a Junior at Farragut High School. “I [was] used to doing everything on paper, answering questions on paper, and just doing the normal…[and] switching from class to class [online was] hard.”

Philip Cantor, a science teacher who has been teaching at North Grand High School for 14 years, described how the policy inadvertently impacted participation negatively in his virtual classroom.

As a result, Cantor had to think of creative ways to make remote learning more engaging for his students.

“I tried to give them some choices about what they could do [to] show their learning,” he said. “Students could create a comic...or they could write a song or a rap...they can [also] make a three-dimensional model. Students came up with some really cool ideas...and they blew me away.”

Hybrid Learning, Getting Kids Back into the Classroom

On Aug. 18, Mayor Lightfoot announced CPS’ Final Remote Learning Plan to the public. The plan stated that the school year would begin entirely online with no in-person learning until at least Nov. 8.

The new guidelines aimed to improve the remote learning experience by stressing accountability with required attendance, mandatory live instruction, and previous grading practices all returning.

Ivette Deleon, the mother of Clarissa, explained how the mandatory screen time impacted her seven-year-old son Ivan.

“It was very aggravating,” she said. “The first day, when he started remote learning, it was very hard for him to learn what he had to do on the computer. There were times where he struggled to pay attention…and he even fell asleep a couple of times.”

On Sept. 30, Mayor Lightfoot later confirmed that remote learning was negatively impacting CPS’ most youngest students and announced that she has directed CPS to develop specific plans to help those students.

Caption: Student enrollment at CPS has been consistently declining for 20 years now, but the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation.

On Oct. 16, CPS released its yearly 20th Day Membership Report. The data showed that CPS enrollment had dropped by nearly 15,000 students, the largest drop in the past two decades.

Tensions Rise Between CPS and CTU

About a month later, the same day Pritzker announced new COVID-19 restrictions, CPS announced that in-person classes will resume first on Jan. 11, with pre-kindergarten and special cluster students. Students K-8 will return on Feb. 1 while school students continue to learn remotely.

According to WBBM News Radio, CTU President Sharkey criticized the announcement, saying that this “appears to be based on the mayor’s political agenda, because it sure isn’t based on science.”

On Jan. 8, five days after the majority of Chicago aldermen signed a letter expressing safety concerns over CPS return to in-person learning, the CTU released images to the public showing how dirty and unprepared classes were for the beginning of in-person classes.

On Jan. 11, 6,000 pre-kindergarten and special needs students returned to the classroom for the first time since last March, CPS CEO Janice Jackson followed through with her promise to lock teachers who refused to show up to work in-person out of their virtual classrooms.

On Jan. 20, CTU’s 600 member House of Delegates voted on whether or not to return to schools for in-person instruction. The vote ended with the majority of delegates voting no due to the lack of Covid-19 vaccinations and other safety concerns.

In order to alleviate student anxieties, CPS announced a new grading policy on April 30. The new policy gave students the flexibility to improve or maintain their grades from the third quarter.

After about a month of CPS and CTU both negotiating and exchanging proposals, late evening on Feb. 10, both sides officially come to an agreement for a return for in-person learning.

The deal included that certain students, teachers, and staff return to school two days a week in a staggered phase with the CTU securing a vaccination plan for CPS workers -- 1,500 being inoculated each week. There will also be safety committees at each school to enforce safety standards.

On Feb. 11, Ivan was one of the thousands of students who returned once again to in-person learning.

“He likes to be in person more than online because he's with his teachers one on one,” Deleon said, when asked about which type of instruction her son prefers more. “So, when it's time for him to come home and do it online again, he doesn't want to do it. He gets aggravated.”

Looking Ahead: The Post Pandemic Educational Landscape

Mark Warschauer, professor of Education at the University of California-Irvine, and expert on digital learning, believes that the Covid-19 pandemic could have long-lasting consequences on not only students but also the entire education system.

“We should be thinking about extra summer school sessions or longer workdays, or Saturday schools, extra tutoring, or money that we can put in to help this generation of kids, especially the younger kids who are behind,” he said.

“We're not going to have all online classes, but we're not going back. There’s going to be more attention to online learning [and] to the quality of online learning because people have realized both its potential and as well as [its] necessity."

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