CHICAGO — 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 city officials presented Friday despite opposition to any in-person instruction by the teachers union because of the coronavirus threat.
During a news conference, Chicago Public Schools officials were careful to call the proposed hybrid approach a preliminary framework and they asked parents, students and staff to weigh in on it. A final decision about in-person instruction for the district's more than 300,000 students won't come until late August, with classes set to begin Sept. 8.
Under the plan, parents would be able to opt out of in-person instruction for their children and instead have them learn only online. Meanwhile, school staffers with medical needs would be able to apply for leaves of absence.
Masks would be required inside school buildings and on buses, and the district has more than a million cloth coverings available for students and staff. Class sizes would be capped at 15, and most students would remain in the same classroom for much of the day, including for meals.
Pre-K classes would be in-person only, while 11th and 12th graders would only learn online.
"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."
Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said nothing in the framework unveiled Friday would make the union soften its insistence on sticking to only online classes to start the fall semester.
Union leaders also noted the disproportionate number of coronavirus cases and deaths among Black and Latino residents — a concern that can't be easily dismissed by a district with a student body that is 35% Black and 46% Hispanic.
"I think we've got a good case to make, and there's a strong likelihood that the powers that be in Chicago and the mayor is going to have to reverse herself on this," Sharkey said.
The union's attorney told reporters Thursday that no one can force its members to return to work in unsafe condition. Officials haven't threatened any specific legal steps, but they said they hope to organize members with parents and community groups against any in-classroom plans.
Teachers went on strike for 11 days in October amid a contract dispute that exacerbated existing tensions with Lightfoot during what was her first year in office.
Lightfoot said Friday that she wasn't concerned about the possibility of a fresh legal battle with the teachers union over the coming school year. She said the district's CEO, 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 from teachers there before she makes 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 last half of 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 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?"
Williams has been able to work from home as a community organizer and he helped his children with virtual learning once schools went online-only this spring. He said he knows parents whose jobs didn't permit that, but he argued that two days of in-person instruction isn't going to help those families enough to offset the risks to the health of a child or other family members.
"Why not wait it out?" he said.
Lightfoot said the city is pursuing ways to help provide working parents with child care options aside from in-person school days or hours, but no details have been announced.
Chicago classrooms emptied in March when Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered school districts statewide to switch to virtual instruction in an effort to slow 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.
Texas on Friday gave public schools permission to keep campuses closed for more than 5 million students well into the fall as the state scrambles to contain one of the largest resurgences of the coronavirus in the country. And California issued strict guidance making it unlikely that many schools will resume in-person instruction this fall, raising the likelihood of empty classrooms in the country's two biggest states despite President Donald Trump's demands that schools welcome back students at the start of the school year.
Other districts, including New York City's, plan to combine some in-person attendance with online work.