Returning Illinois Children to Classrooms Seems More Critical Than Ever

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When Illinois schools switched to online learning in March due to COVID-19, many experts predicted the worst.

They warned that distance learning – an entirely new approach to teaching taken on the fly – would be a poor substitute for in-person classroom instruction.

Now we know: they were certainly right.

Published data by Chicago Public Schools last week revealed that online learning has been a terrible disappointment. The results are a huge red flag for summer school, which will be online this year for thousands of students who do not complete all of their distance learning courses this spring.

CPC did not attach any policy recommendations to the new findings, but the message is clear: every effort must be made, as we first wrote four weeks ago, to safely reopen brick and mortar schools in the fall.

Not just in Chicago, but across the state.

If distance learning falls short of acceptable minimums in Chicago, it is fair to assume that it is woefully inadequate in other school districts as well.

Children are not present

According to the data, only 59% of CPS students log on regularly – at least three days a week – to the school district’s online distance learning platform. About a quarter of students, some 58,000, do not go online at all.

Homeless students and students of color are less likely than their peers to go online even once a week.

Some students have basically disappeared. Over 2,000 children have not been reached at all by anyone in their school, since the schools were closed by Governor JB Pritzker in mid-March.

Positive point: 93% of students now have a laptop and WiFi.

As summer school approaches, CPS of course has a duty to try to reach the remaining 7%, as far as possible. Otherwise, “summer could be wasted,” as school board president Miguel del Valle said at the Chicago school board meeting on Wednesday,

But let’s face it: the neighborhood faces a problem with no clear solution.

Realistically, what can CPS do to engage tens of thousands of students who have the equipment and the means to connect remotely – but don’t? As LaTanya McDade, head of education, said, the problem “may not be based solely on access to technology.”

Maybe a high school student absent from e-learning is working to help a newly unemployed parent pay the bills. Perhaps a student has working parents who are unable to supervise their home schooling. Maybe parents just aren’t doing their part to make distance learning work.

All the more reason to get students back to school safely, if possible, this fall.

We know that reopening Illinois schools in September will be a daunting task. And we know that the first priority of Chicago and the state must be the safety of children, teachers, all other school employees, and parents. No one can say how threatening the coronavirus will be in the fall.

But what a price our schoolchildren are paying in the meantime.

Teachers so frustrated

Teachers say they are also at a dead end. Distance education keeps them from doing their best job. And, as parents themselves in many cases, they have their own children’s lessons to watch out for at home.

“We’re stressed too,” a third-grade teacher told us. “It’s not just children who are in these situations.

At last week’s school board meeting, CEO Janice Jackson said a task force will soon unveil a plan to reopen schools.

“Nobody wants to see the students back in school more than me,” Jackson said.

Of this we have no doubt.

No one is happy – certainly not professional educators – when real schooling barely falters.

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