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What Back-To-School Might Look Like For Chicago Students In The Fall

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A return to some kind of normalcy means students and teachers returning to school. But with concern about a second wave of coronavirus hitting the U.S. in the fall, quite what back to school will look like is a big question. Chicago Public Schools, CPS, is the third-biggest system in the nation - 355,000 students. The person responsible for their education and safety is Janice Jackson, CEO of Chicago public schools. She is also mom to two students in those schools.

Janice Jackson, welcome.

JANICE JACKSON: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Hey. So Chicago's already made the call. You're going to do remote learning for the remainder of this academic year. How is it going? How is attendance?

JACKSON: Well, we're currently tracking both student attendance and contact with our students because it's critically important that there are contact - you know, there's contact between teachers and students. I don't think there's anything more significant than that during this time. We're really proud of the program that we put in place and our efforts to distribute devices across the city. But like so many other districts, we're dealing with a new system. And there are some growing pains with that.

KELLY: Speak to that. I mean, to the question of attendance, how are you tracking that. What's it showing?

JACKSON: Well, first, it's important to note that our process has always centered on flexibility, understanding that this is unchartered territory and that these times are like no other. And so what we are doing is first establishing contact with our students and families and making sure that they have the things that they need in order to access our remote learning program. But then we're doing the things that we're uniquely positioned to do as a school system - so meeting those basic needs, like distributing food. We have thousands of families that rely on us every single day for that. Making sure that there are devices there, addressing the digital divide, where that's an issue for many of our in and temporary living situations.

KELLY: Right.

JACKSON: So we're keeping in contact with them but also engaging them on platforms such as Google Meet and others so that we can offer them high-quality instruction during the day.

KELLY: You mentioned devices a couple times.

JACKSON: Yeah.

KELLY: And I know that about a third of kids in Chicago didn't have personal computers when the city shut down, which obviously makes it harder to do, or if not impossible to do remote learning.

JACKSON: Yeah.

KELLY: Do they have them now? How is that going?

JACKSON: They do. Our goal was to distribute 100,000 devices we have surpassed that. We're at about 102. And we've adjusted that plan. So now we're looking at distributing about 115,000 devices. And so far, that's good. We started with those that were in our inventory but also purchased another 30,000 to support our students and families.

KELLY: You have got something like 67,000 ESL - English as a second language - students in your system.

JACKSON: Yeah.

KELLY: You've got, of course, the disease taking a disproportionate toll on Chicago's black community. Do you have the resources to make sure kids in these groups that are facing some extra challenges - that they don't fall behind?

JACKSON: You know, this is a large district. And we're facing the same type of uncertainty that we see across the country. But I've been very proud of the flexibility that we've been able to use in our plan. So again, we started with those basic needs. Even in our remote learning plan, we made sure that we wanted to A, provide additional guidance for students that are English-language learners, as well as our special needs students who are at home with their parents who need additional support in order to meet their needs. And so we didn't just put out a plan. We trained our teachers around that. And we also provided guidance for our parents, as well.

KELLY: So you do have what you need to make sure that these kids are keeping up to the to the maximum extent possible?

JACKSON: I mean, I think that's a broad statement to make. This - I don't think any district or city can say that they have what they need. You turn on the news every day, and there's a call for something. But I think we're responding very quickly and in extremely flexible ways to many of our families. I think that people see the school system as a trusted institution. And they rely on us. And we're serving thousands of meals a day, distributing devices. People are coming to us for support and resources. So I think we're doing a good job responding and supporting the efforts in the city as a whole.

KELLY: All right. We thank you for your time. That is Janice Jackson, CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

Thanks again.

JACKSON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.