In July, the organization Kids First Chicago took a citywide poll of parents. Ninety-five percent supported a fall learning model that was at least partially remote. Still, the authors wrote in their report, most parents believed remote learning wouldn’t meet their children’s needs.
However, the baseline educational model didn’t meet every student’s needs to begin with, with Chicago’s Black students historically more likely to be suspended, expelled, or arrested. Internet access, used for homework and research in an ordinary year, is weak at best in many homes across the city.
As the fall semester approached, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) had an opportunity to address not only problems caused by the pandemic, but those that preceded it. The district has since eliminated certain forms of discipline and offered free internet, and stakeholders have called for more to be done, some making changes of their own.
Such changes are playing out at Chicago’s Amundsen High School, where Anna Pavichevich serves as principal.
Pavichevich says that, during her eight-year tenure at Amundsen, she has prioritized funding social and emotional support. Paired with her background in special education, she says, this has helped her staff support students holistically. Previously, such social-emotional support was prioritized for students who’d been flagged as needing intervention; now, she says, many more students are experiencing distress and fear. Remote learning makes addressing this large caseload possible.
Cybill Ortiz, an assistant principal at Amundsen, says the school had already amassed a fourteen-member “CARE Team” before the COVID-19 pandemic, comprising such staff as social workers and a homelessness liaison.
Now, CARE Team members have begun talking to students proactively, Pavichevich says, as well as dropping into virtual class sessions to scan for signs of stress, distress, and anxiety —“I’m calling it ‘lurking,’” she says.
Earlier this year, in response to demands from the Chicago Teachers Union, CPS committed to hiring 680 school social workers by June 2023. Though this goal isn’t slated to be met until 2023, the overall headcount in the district was gradually increasing before the pandemic, with a second social worker brought on full time at Amundsen since it began.
At any rate, Pavichevich says, addressing students’ social-emotional health isn’t always a numbers game—it’s a strategy. While the overall makeup of her school’s team hasn’t drastically changed, its approach has.
“I have never had more communication with parents at home,” says Eric Cochran, a social worker at Amundsen. This, paired with increased collaboration with his existing team, he says, has already led to catching and understanding symptoms of distress earlier.
Pavichevich says that she intends to continue this wider reach of care indefinitely, helping staff to meet a long-time goal: to think of students beyond the “Amundsen bubble.”
“We don’t know what trauma students are experiencing at home,” she says.
The pandemic has spurred attorneys like Jackie Ross to draw attention to at-home circumstances as well.
Ross, a staff attorney with the Civitas Childlaw Center and an adjunct professor at the Loyola University School of Law, recently met with a student who had an individualized education program (IEP) but whose grades were slipping during remote learning.
The student’s neighborhood, it turned out, had been damaged during recent protests, and acknowledging the associated distraction and trauma openly “disarmed” the team that had assembled to discuss the student’s needs and whether the school was meeting them, Ross says. One team member was even from the same neighborhood, saying, “it was really hard for me to show up for this meeting today, too.”
The goal, Ross says, is to balance this newfound empathy with objectivity: Academic and disciplinary infractions have context—namely, a pandemic and social unrest—and considering this context could improve existing processes, especially those that have been enacted recently to reduce bias and disparities.
In September, CPS amended its code of conduct so that “lower-level disruptive student behavior” would be addressed with “restorative practices” and other less disruptive measures, rather than in-school suspension. This comes after a statewide bill was implemented in 2016 to eliminate zero-tolerance suspension policies and CPS pledged in 2018 to address the racial disparities that resulted from existing suspension practices.
In the past few years, says Ross, many teachers and administrators have nonetheless found disciplinary shortcuts, thus violating the “spirit” of these changes. Further removing punitive measures, as CPS did in September, is a start, she says; remote learning opens the door for the rest, offering an opportunity to break up instruction and spend time talking to students.
“I would like to see the school day be shortened a little bit, maybe by an hour, so that teachers can have the capacity to really call parents and figure out what are the obstacles that are preventing the kids from doing well,” she says. When people have the space to share, creative solutions arise to address the causes of behavior, says Ross. “That gives me hope.”
While CPS has not yet released plans to shorten or restructure the school day and did not respond to requests for comment, the disciplinary changes remain on the books. And other citywide changes suggest further support for students and the circumstances from which they come.
Chicago Connected, a program actively administering free high-speed internet to the families of 100,000 CPS students, serves as not only academic support but the beginning of a “permanent public support system for families in Chicago,” according to a press release from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office.
Internet access is “one of the most powerful equalizers,” Lightfoot was quoted as saying in the release, allowing people across the age spectrum “to build career skills, apply for jobs, register to vote and stay up-to-date on current events.” As the nonprofit Block Club Chicago reported in September, the city’s chief financial officer also expressed interest in expanding internet services to families without school-age children.
This kind of increase in access wasn’t prioritized before the pandemic, says Maureen Kelleher, a senior writer and editor for brightbeam, an education activism publication.
She points to budding childcare solutions as another newfound priority: CPS recently opened nine free “child learning hubs,” where students can do work and attend virtual classes under the supervision of city employees. Children of essential workers—along with those living in “high-need communities” and temporary housing—will be prioritized for care, according to the program’s website.
Kelleher says it’s a long time coming to support Chicago’s essential workers, disproportionately low-income people of color, whose childcare needs predated the conflicts that remote learning introduced.
Learning hubs set a precedent for city-administered childcare that only several other U.S. cities, such as New York and El Paso, have attempted. And the process of expanding the service is experimental and participatory, with CPS issuing surveys directly to parents to identify where more learning hubs may be needed.
Currently, the capacity of the centers doesn’t meet the demand for them, says Kelleher, but it’s a start.
However dire the circumstances, the pandemic provides an opportunity for such fresh starts, says Pavichevich. “I’m in my 36th year, and I’m learning to do things that I’d never thought I’d have to do,” she says.
Whether faculty, staff, administrators, or other stakeholders, “we’re all like first-year teachers again,” she says, with a responsibility to learn, try, and improve.
“Life isn’t just a question of filling in gaps.”
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.