Chicago schools to begin fall semester remotely, dropping hybrid plan

CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago’s mayor on Wednesday announced that the nation’s third-largest school district will not welcome students back to the classroom, after all, and will instead rely only on remote instruction to start the school year.

The city’s decision to abandon its plan to have students attend in-person classes for two days a week once the fall semester starts Sept. 8 came amid strong pushback from the powerful teachers union and as school districts around the country struggle with how to teach their children during the coronavirus pandemic.

When Chicago officials announced their hybrid-learning plan last month, they said it was subject to change depending on families’ feedback and how the coronavirus was faring in the area.

On Wednesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot attributed the change in plans to a recent uptick in confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the city.

A survey also showed that 41% of the parents of elementary school students and 38% of the parents of high school students didn’t plan to send their children back to the classroom this fall, the district said in a news release. Under the original plan, parents were allowed to opt out of in-person instruction.

“Here in Chicago, we are in a better place than most other areas in the country and in the surrounding area,” Lightfoot said at a City Hall news conference. “But the fact of the matter is, we are seeing an increases in cases. The decision to start remotely makes sense for a district of CPS’ size and diversity.”

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Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Public Health, said that in the last month, there have been increases in Chicago’s average number of new confirmed cases and the percent of positive tests. She said Chicago also can learn from schools moving forward with some in-classroom instruction, particularly those in areas where spread of the virus is better controlled.

Officials said they will reassess the situation this fall and decide whether in-person classes would be possible in the second quarter of the school year.

“I would like everyone in Chicago to take this opportunity to think again about if there are things that you personally could do to turn our curve the other way,” Arwady said.

The Chicago Teachers Union firmly opposed the district’s hybrid proposal and called for virtual-only instruction to start the year. Union officials said it wasn’t possible to keep staff and more than 300,000 students safe in hundreds of schools around the city.

The union also took preliminary steps this week toward a strike vote by its members if the district’s proposal for in-person instruction went forward.

The union’s president, Jesse Sharkey, tweeted Tuesday night as rumors of the shift circulated: “A win for teachers, students and parents. It’s sad that we have to strike or threaten to strike to be heard, but when we fight we win!”

Lightfoot said the union’s position didn’t force the city’s hand. She said the data on confirmed coronavirus cases changed during the past month.

“People are fearful and they are concerned,” she said. “This was not an easy decision to make.”

The Los Angeles Unified School District decided against reopening later this month for in-person learning. School officials said it wouldn’t be safe for students to do so while the coronavirus continues to spread.

New York City has announced a plan to do hybrid instruction, where students would be in school buildings in small groups on some days of the week but would learn remotely from home on other days. The state’s governor hasn’t said yet whether he will approve the city’s plan.

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