CPS seeks to broaden reopening process by involving families, stakeholders


A screenshot of the March 10 town hall. Clockwise from top right: a sign language interpreter, Chief of Facilities Clarence Carson, CPS Representative Adrian Segura, Deputy Chief of High Schools Erick Pruitt, and Lake View High School Principal Paul Karafiol. (CPS)

By Aidan Sadovi, Theo Gary, and Megan Camacho

Despite an impaired start for some attendees (faulty links were the culprit), a March 10 high school town hall opened with CPS’ goals for reopening high schools this year: a phased approach to in-person hybrid learning for the fourth quarter, end of year and summer engagement with students, and a smooth and successful opening in the fall.

There was no shortage of details at the meeting for parents and stakeholders who’ve been left in the dark up to this point. Dr. Kenneth Fox, Chief Health Officer, briefly went over important practices already in place such as social distancing, the need for cloth masks, and daily health screeners required for all those who enter school grounds. 

The district advertised both high school and elementary town hall meetings on the matter of a possible spring reopening in an email including a reopening opt-in form and Zoom links for   meetings held on the evenings of Wednesday, March 10, and  in the case of the elementary school meeting, Tuesday, March 16. Topics heavily discussed during the hour-long meeting included vaccination, testing, ventilation, opt-in complaints, the best methods for involving stakeholders and families, and issues with students commuting via public transportation. After a lengthy slideshow presentation and discussion on these matters, the floor was open for attendees to send in questions.  

 Some reported issues with the Zoom link and were unable to attend, to which the district responded by scheduling a second high school town hall meeting on March 17 for those who found difficulty.

“Understanding the learning preferences of families is key to our preparation,” Chief Schools Officer Bogdana Chkoumbova said during the town hall. 

Chkoumbova urged families to fill out CPS’ intent form, which is open until Friday, March 19, so that the district is able to gain an idea of how many students would be willing to participate in a hybrid return. The form stipulates that if a participant chooses the option of continuing remote learning, they would be locked into their submission, and transitioning to in-person learning within the same year would not be possible. The opt-in form is binding, and “is the final opportunity to choose in person learning this year,” according to a CPS email.

Conversely, selecting the choice of in-person learning means a student could transition back to a remote environment upon request, or if circumstances necessitate it. Families can also call their respective schools and ask to be placed in the in-person category.  

Some attendees expressed discontent with the two-choice opt-in form.

Ed Bannon, a spectator at the meeting, said, “Opting in doesn’t mean I’m interested in sending my child back. Your policy leaves me no choice to keep my options open. Do you Understand?” Dr. Kenneth Fox, Chief Health Officer, replied with a “Yes” in the chat.  

More than 36,000 CPS employees have been provided opportunities for vaccination, but only 4,200 were vaccinated at CPS sites, according to the slideshow displayed at the meeting. Others were vaccinated at non-CPS sites, meaning the district does not have access to the full vaccination picture. 

In order to gain more of an idea of just how many employees have actually been vaccinated, teachers and employees were encouraged to fill out a vaccination-status survey sent out to all CPS workers. Project manager Shruti Saxena said that there are some teachers and employees who “have indicated they do not want to be vaccinated.” 

Deputy Chief for High Schools Erick Pruitt said that students’ voices will be heard. At the meeting he announced that the district would be forming a Student Strategic Advisory Team (SSAT) which would “meet with the reopening committee and provide feedback on the framework to reopen high schools.” Also announced was a future student town hall, survey and focus groups. 

An initiative to establish COVID-19 testing for all school staff in the 10 ZIP codes with the highest amount of positive COVID-19 results was also announced. 25% of students in the same schools will also be offered testing, per the slideshow. Weekly testing of staff already in-person has also been ramped up, with data being accessible on CPS’ online reopening guide. Panelists assured attendees that testing would never be forced. 

At one point, an anonymous attendee who claimed to be a high school teacher and parent said one of their classrooms was only given one purifier even though health standards meant 14 would be required for the room’s size.

“I’m concerned as a teacher and parent who would be in these rooms,” they said.

Chief Facilities Officer Clarence Carson responded, calling CPS’ ventilation plan a “layered mitigation strategy through several means.” The plan involves the circulation of outside air and the mandatory opening of windows at least two inches along with the aforementioned use of air purifiers. Attendees were directed to CPS.edu/airquality to find out where respective schools are in terms of ventilation and air quality. 

In the later stretches of the meeting, CPS polled meeting attendees on the best way for stakeholders to be “engaged and informed.” Twenty-eight percent of participants chose in-person walkthroughs, 27% chose surveys, along with the same amount for weekly virtual programming,” respectively, and 18% chose “short videos.”   

On the topic of public transportation and the possible pitfalls of crowding and other dangers, panelists were initially hesitant on specifics. Dr. Fox abruptly remarked that “You can control the things you can control,”  acknowledging the untameable nature of America’s third most populous city and commuting ecosystem. “All the precautions ought to be followed on public transportation, also,” he added. 

Paul Karafiol, the principal of Lake View High School, seemed more enthusiastic on the subject. Karafiol explained how he was working with the CTA to plan and streamline an eventual return that could minimize the more harmful aspects of the busy morning and afternoon commute for high school students and employees on buses and trains.  

Would-be attendees who missed out on the first town hall meeting can expect the same and possibly more from the district’s reopening panel on March 17.