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Chicago Public Schools to Begin In-Person Learning on January 11 Following Winter Break

17 November 2020

To Ensure Families Have Equitable Access to High-Quality Instruction, CPS Will Proceed with In-Person Learning Beginning with Pre-K and Cluster Program Students and Phase in Grades K-8; District Announces Comprehensive Testing Strategy to be Put in Place by Beginning of In-Person Learning

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CHICAGO - Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) today announced that all students will learn remotely through the end of 2020 with pre-k and students enrolled in intensive and moderate cluster classrooms returning to in-person learning on Jan. 11, 2021, and students in grades K-8 returning on Feb. 1. While the district is prepared to safely offer in-person learning at this time — consistent with schools across the city and country, including at private and parochial schools in Chicago that have seen low incidence of school-based transmission — beginning in-person instruction in January will minimize disruptions as students transition back to schools while allowing students to quarantine following the holidays. Far too many CPS families — particularly Black and Latinx families on the south and west sides of the city — have not been served well enough by remote learning, and opening classrooms beginning with our youngest and highest-need learners will help ensure greater access to high-quality instruction this year.  

“While remote learning has allowed many of our students to continue their studies over the past eight months, the reality is that our Black and Latinx students, our youngest students and highest-need learners have not been equitably served,” said Mayor Lightfoot. “The decision to begin in-person learning this January will restore their access to high-quality instruction and is the result of balancing our commitment to equity with our current public health situation. The health of our students, their families and our school communities remain our top priority, and we will continue to work closely with CPS and CDPH to ensure their safety as they transition back to the classroom.”

Although cases of COVID-19 are rising in many areas, numerous states in the U.S. and countries in Europe are keeping schools open because mitigation strategies have proven to be successful. Today, Governor Pritzker announced that Illinois will move to Tier 3 of the Restore Illinois Mitigation Plan beginning this Friday, Nov. 20, which permits in-person instruction. ,  Classroom-based learning is critical to the overall academic and social-emotional development of students and prolonged school closures cause long-term negative consequences while exacerbating inequities. Further, schools have not been found to be a significant source of COVID-19 transmission.

“It’s our moral imperative to do everything in our power to safely open schools beginning with our youngest and highest-needs learners, and the decision to re-open in January will ensure that Black and Latinx families — many of whom are essential workers and cannot ensure their children are fully supported through remote learning — have more equitable access to instruction this year,” said CPS CEO Dr. Janice K. Jackson.  “While we are eager to open our doors as soon as possible, beginning in-person learning in January is the right decision because it will minimize learning disruption from planned breaks and allow time for students and staff to limit activity prior to resuming in-person learning.”

Additionally, in alignment with Governor JB Pritzker’s announcement today the district will suspend all high school sports beginning Friday, Nov. 20. A limited group of sports — bowling, cheer, dance and boy’s swimming and diving —were previously permitted to move forward this winter, and these sports will remain suspended until the state determines they can move forward. 

The health and safety of CPS students, families and staff are the district’s highest priorities, and CPS has been working closely with CDPH to ensure the strongest possible protections are in place. While the city is greatly concerned about the significant increase in COVID-19 transmission throughout the city, studies and outcomes from other school systems that implemented school-based learning — including Chicago Archdiocese schools — show that with strong mitigation plans like the one CPS has prepared, schools can reopen and operate safely even amid concerning levels of transmission in the community. Although the city is confident that in-person instruction can proceed safely at this time, CPS will wait until after the holidays to resume in-person learning both because it will allow students to quarantine following the holidays and because beginning class during the disruptions posed by the holidays would not be conducive to the needs of young children who will need to adapt to a consistent, new routine.

Research and data from countries around the world and in the U.S. show that schools can operate safely even during periods of elevated COVID-19 transmission in the community, without inciting or further driving community spread. However, a rapidly increasing community case count leads to increasing disruption of educational activities, because more staff and students need to isolate and quarantine after exposures to COVID-19 outside of school. The district will therefore look to begin in-person education in a phased approach when the level of community spread has stabilized in Chicago. 

CDPH, in consultation with CPS, will continue to track the spread of COVID-19 using several important data metrics it watches on a daily basis. For example, like public health departments around the world, CDPH calculates a “case doubling time,” which is currently 12 days in Chicago. This means that since the start of the second surge in early October, the number of newly diagnosed COVID-19 cases in Chicago is doubling every 12 days (an example can be found here on page 10). Community spread stabilizes as this “case doubling time” gets longer, meaning the pandemic curve is flattening. At this point in time, CPS and CDPH are looking for at least a 50 percent improvement in case doubling time — meaning a doubling time of at least 18 days — to indicate that community spread is stabilizing and in-person instruction at CPS can begin.

“We’re in the midst of this second surge right now and there’s no doubt the trends we see are very concerning. We want to get to a more stable place with community spread before bringing students and staff back to school,” said CDPH Commissioner Allison Arwady, M.D. “Once we do see more stability, even if case rates remain relatively high, I’m confident in-person learning can work and be safely done.”    

Staff Testing Plan to Provide an Additional Layer of Health Screening

While the CDC and other public health authorities have not required schools to implement testing plans, the district will be utilizing a comprehensive COVID-19 testing strategy. To support students and staff who are symptomatic or have been a close contact of someone who tested positive, CPS and CDPH will facilitate access to free testing through either established primary care providers or city partners. And to help identify any undetected spread of COVID-19, school-based staff members will be tested regularly through a surveillance testing plan that is in development and will launch in time for the return of in-person learning. 

While the vast majority of districts that are conducting in-person learning have not established  surveillance testing systems, the district is eager to implement every possible measure to support our school communities during these difficult times. Opening in January also allows the district additional time to finalize the details and logistics necessary to implement the comprehensive testing regime, and additional details will be available closer to the start of in-person learning. 

Providing Parents with Options

In order to plan for a potential re-opening, the district issued an opt-in form in October to parents of pre-k and students enrolled in cluster programs to determine if they wanted to return to school in-person or continue learning from home.  Later this month, the district will provide all parents of students in pre-k and moderate and intensive cluster programs with the option of changing their decision, regardless of which choice they made this fall. Parents who have not changed their decision do not have to make an additional submission. Opt-in forms will also be sent to parents of students enrolled in grades K-8, which will return on February 1. After the submission deadline, parents who choose in-person learning can change their decision to remote learning at any time, while parents who choose remote learning will not be able to opt-in to in-person instruction until a later date in order for the district and schools to properly plan to safely welcome students. High school students who learn in general education settings will continue to participate in remote learning and the district will evaluate in-person learning options for those students in 2021. 

Key Dates for Return:




Week of November 23 

Intent to return forms sent to staff for grades K-8

Opt-in forms sent to families for the following grades/groups:

-Pre-k and students enrolled in moderate and intensive cluster programs (forms do not need to be resubmitted if parents responded in October and have not changed their preference)

-Kindergarten through grade 8 

Week of December 7


Opt-in decisions due 

January 4

Staff return for pre-k and cluster programs 


January 11


In-person classes resume for the following grades/groups of students: 


-Students enrolled in moderate and intensive cluster programs

January 25

All K-8 staff return 


February 1


K-8 students return through a hybrid model

As of Nov. 16, approximately 5,600 students out of approximately 16,700 eligible students (34 percent) at 404 district schools opted in to school-based learning. The average number of students in pre-k and cluster programs opting-in per school is 13.5, and opt-in numbers ranged from zero students to 163 for schools that serve large numbers of students who are enrolled in pre-k and moderate and intensive cluster programs. While the district had anticipated more parental interest in school-based learning, we have seen similar trends in other large urban districts, such as New York City and Houston.  An additional 9 percent of parents did not respond to the form, which automatically places them in remote learning. Schools individually called any families who did not respond to the form, and the district also contacted families who did not respond. A summary of the results can be found here

Due to the small class sizes for all pre-k and most cluster classrooms, all pre-k students will be able to attend school daily, and most students enrolled in cluster programs would be able to attend school daily, with some cluster classrooms implementing hybrid learning depending on the number of students who opt-in.

The November response data did not factor into the district’s decision to postpone in-person instruction until January, and the district is committed to providing in-person instruction to students who opt-in for January as long health officials deem it safe to reopen at that time. 

“We are committed to providing students with quality learning options no matter which option families choose,” said CPS Chief Education Officer LaTanya D. McDade. “In the weeks ahead, schools and the district will continue outreach to families and ensure they are prepared for whichever learning option they choose.” 

Supporting Dedicated Staff with Options

In order to support staffing needs and provide eligible employees with information on their leave and accommodation options, the district released an intent-to-return form for pre-k and cluster program staff in October, and will conduct a similar process for staff who serve students in grades K-8. 

In October, the district asked approximately 6,800 pre-k and cluster program staff (2,700 teachers, 2,600 paraprofessionals and 1,450 clinicians and other staff) to return for in-person learning. Of those asked to return, approximately 28 percent (30 percent of teachers, 24 percent of paraprofessionals, and 33 percent of clinicians) submitted formal requests for accommodations or leaves of absence as of November 16, 2020. Submitting a formal leave request is different from the intent to return forms, which were designed to gather an understanding of how many staff may potentially seek formal leave or accommodations. On the October intent to return to work form, 42 percent of teachers, 52 percent of paraprofessionals, and 35 percent of clinicians and other staff indicated they would return without seeking an accommodation. 

The district will launch a similar process for staff serving grades K-8 later this month, and will continue to work with individual employees to support their requests, prioritizing those with high-risk medical conditions. CPS also continues to work with principals to ensure staffing for in-person learning. Employees requesting an accommodation or leave must complete an official application, which is separate from the intent to return form. 

Safely Reopening Schools with Stringent Health and Safety Measures 

The district has implemented the following public health measures — including the CDC’s five key mitigations for schools — to promote the health and safety of students, staff, and anyone who enters a school building:

  • Face Coverings: Cloth face coverings will be provided to all staff and students and required at all times, except when eating and a small number of additional approved activities.  

  • Pods: Students and educators will be grouped into stable pods or small class sizes to minimize exposure to other students, allow for social distancing in classrooms, and support contact tracing

  • Daily Screenings: Daily risk and symptom screening, and temperature checks are required for all students and staff learning or working in school buildings.

  • Contact Tracing: To help reduce the transmission of COVID-19, CPS has hired dedicated staff to support the intake of cases and provide proper notification. CPS will work in coordination with CDPH to ensure that those identified as close contacts have rapid contact tracing and are connected to city resources such as monitoring and testing.   

  • HEPA Filters and Air Quality Assessments: Through an $8.5 million investment by the district, every classroom and front office is receiving its own HEPA purifier, which filters over 99.99% of airborne viruses, bacteria, and mold. And to ensure buildings are properly ventilated, the district conducted multi-stage ventilation and air quality assessments, which inspected every room and utilized state-certified environmental specialists. Those reports can be found at The district has also spent $68 million on mechanical upgrades. 

  • Additional Custodians: To ensure comprehensive cleaning protocols are completed every day, the district will hire a total of 400 additional custodians when all grades phase in.  

  • Sanitizer and Soap: The district invested over $3.5 million to secure over 50,000 hand sanitizer stations in all high-traffic areas and soap dispensers to support regular hand washing and sanitizing.

  • Disinfectant Wipes: The district allocated over $2 million to purchase 86,000 containers of EPA-approved disinfectant wipes for classrooms, offices and other high-touch areas.

  • Hospital-Grade Disinfectant Sprayers: Every CPS school has a hospital-grade mister spray unit that will evenly apply EPA-approved disinfectant for maximum disinfection.

  • Community Notifications: CPS adopted consistent procedures and community notification protocols developed by CDPH to respond to any confirmed cases of COVID-19. To ensure public awareness, the district is tracking confirmed COVID cases at

  • Sneeze Guards and Signage: All schools installed sneeze guards and other physical barriers to protect staff when visitors arrive, and posted signage throughout school facilities to emphasize new policies and procedures.

Chicago Public Schools serves 341,000 students in 638 schools. It is the nation's third-largest school district.