CPS students continue remote learning for the rest of 2020


Lincoln Park High School, located just blocks away from DePaul’s campus, is part of CPS. (Photo courtesy of Kseferovic | Wikimedia Commons)

Every morning, lunchroom associate Theodora Stryalkova walks around Dever Elementary School, one of the closed CPS schools for remote learning and feels as if she is in a ghost house. Even though the school has been closed since March, CPS continues to ensure one daily meal for each of their students.

On her first day back to work — after her manager was hospitalized for Covid-19 — she still hopes to hear kids running around. Educators and parents alike face the dilemma of what’s best for children’s education until the pandemic eases.

“I want to have my kids back in school because I believe this would be in their best interest,” Stryalkova said. At the same time with Covid cases surging again, “this doesn’t seem to be the wise decision for now.”

In fact, CPS has a plan for bringing students back to school, but this doesn’t eliminate the concerns of teachers and parents about the quality of the education under the current circumstances. 

With 26 students, some being their first time in school and others being pre-K for a few months before Covid, CPS kindergarten teacher who preferred to stay anonymous, said she has a huge range of students with different needs.  

For some of them kindergarten is the first experience of being at school, but most of them need more time to adjust to the online learning and there are many others who struggle in different areas. 

Some can already read, and others still learn their letters and numbers while some don’t even speak English and rely on their parents’ constant help to catch up, which is one advantage of remote learning. 

“At the same time the parents were telling me that their English was not improving, they were still struggling to pick up the work as fast, or not as well as we will do in person,” the kindergarten teacher said. In person the teacher says she usually has the kids in small groups where they can do things like forming letters with Play-Doh and learn by playing games.

The teacher says she sees this as a  downside of remote learning because children need to be more interactive, which is crucial for this age.

“Now we can’t do any of that really; although, we still have small groups, it’s not like hands on things so much. It’s more like visual learning,” she said. 

It’s also more difficult for kids who are kinesthetic learners because they need movement and touch, so for them it takes longer to learn remotely compared to in person, according to the teacher.

“What is more, the parents don’t have the resources at home, so worksheets for example, are really hard to do. Thank goodness I was able to get grants, and now the kids all have a whiteboard at home, so we use them to share work and when we have a lot of writing and drawing,”  the teacher said.“I also have a document camera, so I could show them what I’m doing while I’m working, and that’s also been helpful too.”

It is clear that while being remote, students need more than just a safe environment or interaction but also “authentic learning,” said Carmen Vale, a first grade and bilingual teacher at Dirksen Elementary School. 

As a primary teacher with 30 years of experience, Vale said she acknowledges how difficult it is to keep her student interest online compared to in person.

“It’s definitely different than being in a classroom where you can engage more with the kids on a one on one level,” Vale said. “And when kids are working in a whole group, as a whole group you can kind of walk around engage the students and see where they’re at, as opposed to now with the remote learning it’s really hard to guide  the students if they come off task.” 

In fact, the most challenging part is keeping the kids focused. 

“I do try, but it’s really hard. It’s like they get up and walk away, and it’s in that aspect that is a difficulty in itself as well with academics,” Vale said. “It is a matter of streamlining what I do in the classroom as opposed to what I do now with remote learning. I do target the same skills, the same concepts that I would do in the classroom, but because of the time constraint I have to kind of condense it and make it a little bit more concentrated as opposed to more fluid within the classroom.”

And the struggles to keep students focused applies to parents as well, where at least one of the parents constantly works out of home during school. In most cases where there is more than one student, the parent who is at home has to try their best to ensure that the children learn something after all.

“When I happen to be at home during the week, all I do is try to keep my six years old focused in front of the laptop for the school day,” said Sava Dech, a truck driver and father of a fourth and first grader at CPS. “But it is hard because as soon as they have a restroom break or a lunch break — if I happen to not be there, my younger one hurries to play a game or watch YouTube, and all the focusing is gone for the rest of the day.”

The Dech family wants their children to go back to school as soon as there is such an opportunity.

“I believe that sooner or later we all will go through Covid, so I don’t see any point of staying home and leaving our children with no chance of being among peers and learning properly.” Dech said. “The flu is also a dangerous virus, but we don’t stop living our life just because we might get sick.”

On the other side are parents with children who have underlying health conditions, and those who can choose to keep their children remote, as many other parents prefer remote learning. But according to Dech, he says that those like him who want their children back in-person deserve to have this option.

In all cases, CPS reopening framework plans have available options for in-class or hybrid and entirely remote learning as the school district announced in the beginning of the school year. All parents had to fill out a survey stating their preferences, and now the community assumes a similar approach will be used with the new plan for reopening.

However, the option of hybrid learning raises some concerns about how helpful it would be for  younger students.

“In the hybrid option, the students will be at school for a few days and the rest of the time they have to continue remotely including at least one day self preparing which doesn’t seem wise,” Vale said. “I don’t see the benefit with that, specifically with a primary teacher and with the primary features because to teach the kids more authentically, it’s not a matter of just doing worksheets — this is not how kids learn especially at these young ages, but kids learn by doing things with other kids and by interacting on a daily basis. So, I don’t see the benefits of the hybrid.”

Meanwhile, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that starting Nov. 20, the state of Illinois will operate under Tier 3 mitigation, which pushes the CPS reopening framework until the beginning of February 2021.

“Following the guidance of our public health officials, we are planning to begin opening our school buildings for families who choose to return following winter break,” read an email to CPS parents sent on Nov. 17. 

In early November, Arnie Rivera, CPS’ chief operating officer, told the Chicago Tribune that the district had made “critical investments to prepare” the schools, which includes investing in plexiglass dividers, hand sanitizers, disinfectant sprayers and signs about keeping social distancing.

CPS has made ventilation and indoor air quality assessment a priority, which shows that over 99 percent of the classrooms are ready to welcome students and staff, and those under construction or those that don’t have a functioning ventilation system will be “repaired before students and staff can return.”

Also, in order for the classrooms to be fully prepared for the reopening, the district plans to provide at least one operating window, a HAPA air purifier and an operating mechanical ventilation system including air supply and exhaust, which are all part of an $8.5 million investment, according to CPS.

Another part of the reopening framework includes following the CDC’s five key mitigation strategies: consistent and correct use of masks, social distancing, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and disinfection and contact tracing in collaboration with the local health department.

In a following correspondence to the CPS families from Nov. 24, the district announced that based on data from schools in Chicago and throughout the country, the district clearly demonstrated that “classrooms can open safely during the Covid-19 pandemic,” and “that remote learning is enhancing inequities and cannot provide all students with the high-quality education they deserve.” 

The email also noted that CPS will give families the option to begin returning to classrooms in early 2021. The email underlined the plan for all students enrolled in pre-K and moderate and intensive cluster programs to have the option to return to in-person learning as early as Jan. 11, and students in K-8 to be able to return on Feb. 1. And for now, high school students who learn in general education settings will continue learning at home while CPS continues to assess the options for returning to in-person learning in 2021.

All parents who plan their children to return to school should have completed an Intend Form by Dec. 7, 2020.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union announced that they filed a request on Dec. 7 with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (IELRB) for an injunction against Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s arbitrary school reopening.

This is the second injunction that the CTU has filed with the IELRB. The first was rejected because CPS did not have a reopening date. Now, the union seeks to force CPS to bargain enforceable safety standards prior to the building’s reoprning.

“CPS has stonewalled us for months as we’ve been trying to bargain enforceable safety standards for our district-run schools,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in the announcement. “We want our schools open as well, but we want it done safely, and not on the backs of the majority Black and Latinx students we serve.”