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Chicago plans to have kids in classrooms two days a week

CHICAGO (AP) — Most Chicago children would return to the classroom two days a week and spend the other three days learning remotely once the school year begins under a tentative plan outlined Friday by officials from the nation’s third-largest school district, potentially setting up a clash with the union representing thousands of teachers.

Chicago Public Schools officials called the proposed hybrid approach a preliminary framework, though, and asked parents, students and staff to weigh in. A final decision about in-person instruction for the more than 300,000 students won’t come until late August, with classes set to begin Sept. 8.

Parents can opt out of in-person learning and keep their kids online only under the district’s plan. Staff with medical needs can apply for a leave of absence.

Masks will be required inside school buildings and on buses, and the district has more than 1 million cloth coverings available for students and staff. Class sizes will be capped at 15, and most students will remain in one room for much of the day, including for meals.

Pre-kindergarten classes will be in person while 11th and 12th graders will remain entirely online.

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“We have to be ready for any possibility,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said. “COVID-19 has been unpredictable from the start and we have a responsibility to be prepared for what the public health indicators dictate, whether that means remote learning, in-person learning or something in between.”

The Chicago Teachers Union this week called on the distric t to stick with virtual instruction to start the fall, and the union’s attorney told reporters on Thursday that no one can force members to return to work if they feel conditions are unsafe.

The union went on strike for 11 days in October amid a contract dispute that exacerbated existing tensions with Lightfoot during her first year in office.

Lightfoot said Friday that she isn’t concerned about a fresh legal battle with the teachers’ union over the coming school year. She said the district’s Chief Executive Officer Janice Jackson and her staff will continue working with the union and teachers.

“There will be plenty of opportunity for that discussion to continue and I’m confident it will be productive,” Lightfoot said.

Parents described feeling conflicted about the tentative plan. Toby Manewith, whose 13-year-old son will enter eighth grade at a school on the city’s North Side this fall, said she likely would send him to in-person classes but she wants to hear reactions from teachers there before making up her mind.

Manewith said most of her concerns focus on how the school’s administrators will respond to problems. For instance, she wouldn’t want a student who removes a mask when feeling anxious or nauseous to face discipline.

“Kids can get used to rules really quickly if it means the bigger reward of not sitting in their house all day long,” she said. “But there will always be some kids who will need more support.”

Manewith, a writer who has been able to work from home, said her son needs help focusing after being diagnosed with ADHD and sometimes struggled to adjust to virtual learning. She often woke up at 7 a.m. during the spring semester to squeeze in a few hours of uninterrupted writing before sitting down to coach him through assignments.

Joseph Williams, whose five children all attend district schools on the city’s South Side, said he would prefer virtual learning to start the school year. Williams, 31, said he’s skeptical that kids of any age will keep distance from their friends on the bus or in classrooms.

“They’re putting parents in a really hard situation,” he said. “This pandemic is already giving people depression, anxiety. Now you tell us we’re supposed to jeopardize our kids as well?”

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Williams has been able to work from home as a community organizer and helped his children with virtual learning this spring. He said he knows parents whose jobs didn’t permit that but argued that two days of in-person instruction isn’t going to help those families at the risk of a child or family’s health.

“Why not wait it out?” he said.

Lightfoot said the city is pursuing ways to help provide child care outside in-person school days or hours to working parents but no details have been announced.

Chicago classrooms emptied in March when Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered schools districts statewide to switch to virtual instruction as part of efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Schools around the country are struggling with decisions about how to approach the new school year, with COVID-19 cases surging in many places.

Two of California’s largest districts this week announced that their year will begin with online classes only. Other districts, including New York City’s, plan to combine some in-person attendance with online work.