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To Provide Necessary Support for Most Vulnerable Students, CPS Announces Goal to Phase In School-Based Learning

16 October 2020

District Releases Plan to Begin Q2 Remotely for All Students with the Goal to Bring Students in Pre-k and Cluster Programs Back to Classrooms Later in Q2; Final Decision will be Made in Conjunction with CDPH Closer to the Start of the Second Quarter of School Year; In-Person Learning Needed to Address Enrollment and Attendance Crisis Among Earliest Learners, and Low Attendance Among Students Enrolled in Cluster Programs

CPS Office of Communications

Phone: 773-553-1620
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CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools (CPS) today announced that all students will begin the second quarter of school remotely, with the goal bringing students back through a phased approach beginning with the thousands of students in pre-k and students enrolled in intensive and moderate cluster classrooms who cannot be served well enough under any form of remote learning. The district, in consultation with the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) will make a decision about in-person learning closer to the start of the second quarter. The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly increased inequities in the district, with data released today showing that pre-k students, students in cluster programs, and Black and Latinx students are attending school at significantly reduced rates relative to prior years and other students this school year. Consistent with national trends, CPS also experienced the largest enrollment decline in more than two decades driven by fewer new students enrolling in the earliest grades, including a 44 percent decline in Black students enrolled in pre-k compared to last school year.  

The health and safety of CPS students, families and staff are the district’s highest priorities, and CPS has been working closely with the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) to ensure the strongest possible protections are in place. Based on encouraging outcomes from other schools — in Chicago and across the country — that have implemented classroom-based learning, the strength of the district's comprehensive health and safety plan, and the dire need to provide classroom instruction to our most vulnerable students, the district is assessing the potential of safely opening pre-k and cluster classrooms for in-person instruction during the second quarter. As part of the plan, CPS and CDPH will be closely monitoring the evolving public health environment and a final decision on reopening school buildings for pre-k and students enrolled in cluster programs will be made closer to the start of the second quarter.

"Though remote learning has allowed a great number of our students to safely continue learning in light of COVID-19, the fact of the matter is that it has also exacerbated social and economic inequities—preventing our youngest students, cluster program students and students of color from getting the high-quality education they deserve," said Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot. "We are working on a thoughtful and strategic plan that lays a strong foundation for a return to in-person learning. With the collaboration of CPS and CDPH, we will ensure that this next phase is engaging, equitable and above all, safe—especially for our most vulnerable students."

“We have a moral imperative to do everything in our power to safely open our schools for our youngest and most vulnerable learners who cannot be served well enough by any form of remote learning,” said CPS CEO Dr. Janice K. Jackson. “We’ve gotten off to a strong start to the school year under the circumstances but nothing can take the place of in-person instruction, especially for our youngest learners and students in cluster programs who heavily rely on guardians during remote learning. The availability of safe, in-person instruction is an issue of equity and if public health officials continue to support in-person instruction and parents choose to participate, we will be eager to open our doors as soon as possible.”

The district is planning for a phased reopening approach, which would begin with our most vulnerable students in pre-k and intensive and moderate cluster programs who encounter significant challenges participating in remote learning without the support of a guardian, which further exacerbates inequities. Students enrolled in pre-k are aged three and four and special education students enrolled in intensive and moderate cluster programs require a significantly modified curriculum with support in a separate classroom from general education peers for the majority of the day. Due to the significant new operational processes needed to open schools, the district is proposing a phased approach that would begin with the students who most need to be in school and add additional grades as early as January. Later this year, the district will be engaging parents in other grades to assess their interest in returning to classrooms.   

The district has spent the last several months ordering supplies, implementing health processes, and preparing schools for potential in-person hybrid learning. During that same time the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) has been directly monitoring COVID cases among the thousands of students attending in-person private and parochial schools in Chicago, as well as among the staff at these schools.

CDPH has also been closely watching the emerging national data on COVID risk in schools, recognizing that many settings around the country with much more poorly controlled local outbreaks have continued in-person education. In both local and national settings, the data has shown that where schools have strong mitigation practices in place – and a rigorous commitment to maintaining them – the risk of COVID spread is low, and often lower than it is in the community at large.

“CDPH closely tracks cases in all youth settings including daycares, camps, athletic teams, and schools, and the data shows us that when the proper precautions are taken, transmission in those settings is rare,” said CDPH Commissioner Allison Arwady, M.D. With strong protocols around screening, mask wearing, social distancing and cohorting, hand hygiene and environmental cleaning, paired with appropriate case investigation, contact tracing, testing, and quarantine when cases are detected, “we’re confident that we can start rephasing in-person education safely,” she said.

Dr. Arwady noted that COVID data in young people shows that Chicago students who have returned to their classrooms in parochial and private schools actually have lower rates of COVID detected than their counterparts in the community. States and cities around the country that have allowed in-person learning are experiencing similarly low rates of spread. For example, ongoing data analysis from the technology company Qualtrics, in collaboration with education associations, has found that schools have not been a source of significant spread of COVID-19, as was earlier feared.

“On the other hand, as a pediatrician I’m very concerned about the classroom time children are missing and the negative impact that can have on their development, particularly those already facing challenges,” said Dr. Arwady.  

At this point, though cases are increasing, the city remains well below the peak period from last May for new daily COVID cases. Severe COVID cases, in particular, are much less common, with both hospitalizations and deaths down approximately 90 percent from the peak in May. The city’s test positivity rate (the percentage of tests that are positive for COVID-19) is currently below 5 percent. According to the CDC, a community test positivity rate of 3 to 5 percent represents a lower risk of transmission in schools, a positivity rate of 5 percent to 8 percent represents a moderate risk of transmission in schools, and a positivity rate of 8 percent to 10 percent represents a higher risk of transmission in schools.

CDPH will continue to monitor all community COVID data points carefully, as well as all of the school settings that are already in session for in-person education in Chicago.

Choices for Parents and Guardians

On Wednesday, October 21, the district will send all parents and guardians of pre-k and cluster program students an intent form to indicate whether they would feel comfortable sending their students to school. Parents will be asked to complete the form by October 28 and parents will maintain the option to opt out at any time. Due to the small class sizes for all pre-k and most cluster classrooms, all pre-k students would 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. In-person learning would take place in alignment with the stringent health processes outlined in the district’s reopening framework, as well as additional measures. Every school will hold an engagement meeting to answer any questions from parents and guardians to ensure they have the information they need prior to any potential re-opening. 

Families of pre-k students who opt to continue learning remotely will receive a minimum of 60 minutes of live, synchronous instruction per day. Students in all other grades who are in an intensive and moderate cluster program will receive a minimum of 150 minutes of live, synchronous instruction per day, in accordance with ISBE guidance. All related services will continue to be provided per the student’s IEP.

While all students benefit from in-person instruction, the district’s plan prioritizes pre-k and students who attend cluster programs, who will benefit the most by receiving in-person instruction and support. Based on attendance figures, the district’s youngest learners and students enrolled in intensive and moderate cluster programs attend online school at lower rates than their peers, making in-person learning an urgent priority now that it is deemed safe by public health officials.  

Safely Reopening Schools with Stringent Health and Safety Measures 

Due to the stability of the public health situation in Chicago and the district’s work with Dr. Arwady and CDPH to develop a comprehensive health and safety plan aligned to state and federal guidelines, we are in a position to consider safely bringing students back to the classrooms — where they learn best. To protect anyone in a school building, the district has committed to the following measures:

  • Face Coverings: Cloth face coverings will be provided to all staff and students and required at all times.
  • 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: Temperature checks, hand washing, and daily symptom screenings are required before students enter the classroom.
  • Testing: To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the district will ensure that any student or staff member who is symptomatic or a close contact of someone who tested positive has access to a free COVID-19 test. 
  • 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.   
  • Additional Custodians: To ensure comprehensive cleaning protocols are completed every day, the district is hiring 400 additional custodians.
  • Sanitizer and Soap: The district invested over $3.5 million to secure over 50,000 hand sanitizer dispensers 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.

Ensuring Proper Ventilation in Every Classroom

In addition to the measures outlined in the district’s reopening framework, CPS has undertaken a multi-faceted assessment to ensure that schools are properly ventilated in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) standards.

In 2020, the district has invested more than $65 million in mechanical system enhancements and replacements to promote proper ventilation. To ensure that the district only uses classrooms that have proper natural or mechanical ventilation, the school’s building engineers and the district’s Quality Assurance Team are conducting an assessment of every single classroom in the district. And to ensure any potential issues are caught and addressed, the district is contracting with a state-certified environmental hygienist to conduct assessments of air quality at every school and determine if any additional measures are needed. The district will make these reports public in the weeks ahead following their completion, and will ensure that no student is in a classroom that does not have proper ventilation. 

2020-21 Enrollment Figures Highlight Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic 

Consistent with other school districts across the country, large and small, such as Los Angeles UnifiedChicago Archdiocese schools, and other districts across the country, the district has seen large decreases in enrollment in the early grades, specifically pre-k which accounts for 41 percent of the district’s year-over-year enrollment loss. Meanwhile, enrollment at district high schools has increased slightly and higher grades in elementary school follow a pattern that is more consistent with enrollment trends in prior years. 

“While we’re seeing similar trends across the country, the stunning decline among Black children enrolled in pre-k casts a somber light on how the pandemic and remote learning negatively impact our youngest learners,” said CPS Chief Education Officer LaTanya D. McDade. “It’s our responsibility to educate our children and we are prepared to safely offer in-person learning, beginning with our youngest and most vulnerable students, to ensure they stay on a positive academic trajectory.” 

While all races experienced a decline in pre-k enrollment, the number of Black students enrolled in pre-kindergarten dropped by 44 percent compared to last year, and the number of Latinx students dropped by 29 percent. White and Asian students saw less of a decline compared to Black and Latinx student groups, with a 22 percent decline in pre-k enrollment for White students and 9 percent decline in enrollment for Asian students.

Data from the 20th day of school show that while approximately 4,000 fewer students left the district for reasons such as transferring out of the district, far fewer new students enrolled, especially in the earlier grades. 

School Year



New Students Enrolled



Students Leaving the District for Reasons Other Than Matriculation



While additional analysis is needed to gather a full understanding of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nationwide trends and drastic shift in the data show that it has played a significant role in enrollment decline. With fewer students leaving the district and relative stability in enrollment among higher grades, the district believes that the significant challenges presented by even the strongest remote learning plans has led to the dramatic decline in enrollment among our youngest students.  

The following counts were taken on the 20th day of the school year and represent the district's official enrollment for the 2020-21 school year: 

  • System-wide: 340,658
  • District-run Pre-K-12 schools: 281,225
  • K-12 charter schools (including alternative and options schools): 59,433 

School Year 2019-2020 Enrollment

School Year 2020-2021

District-run Elementary Schools

(Includes K-12 Schools)



District-run High Schools






Charter/Contract – Alternative



Alternative Learning Opportunity Programs



District Managed 3-year old Pre-K



District Managed 4-year old Pre-K






District Alternative



Specialty Schools (excluding Pre-K)



Total Enrollment



In order to prepare for potential in-person learning and make remote learning manageable for our youngest learners and their educators, for the first time in several years, the district reduced the number of full-day pre-k seats as part of the Universal Pre-K (UPK) initiative in order to cap class sizes at 15 (rather than 20 in prior years). While the cap on class sizes was a necessary step both for in-person and online learning that ultimately limited capacity, the rate of seats filled for four-year-olds in full-day pre-k was 65 percent, compared to 78 percent during the 2019-20 school year, indicating that the class size cap was not the driving factor in enrollment decline among UPK and rather, the decline was a function of fewer new students enrolling.  

In order to release information to the public in a timely manner, this year’s 20th Day enrollment demographics, available at, show income figures that are not yet complete. Families have until November 18 to turn in forms indicating their income status and an update will be made to the data after the process is complete. 

Significant Attendance Drop Among Students in Cluster Classrooms

While student attendance this school year represents a significant improvement relative to remote learning engagement last spring, participating in remote learning is challenging for many students, especially those who learn in cluster programs.

As of October 9, the district’s cumulative attendance rate is 91.4 percent compared to 95.3 percent at the same point in time last school year. The reduction among students in cluster classrooms is far more significant, with attendance declining from 90.8 percent to 82.4 percent this year. The district believes this significant reduction, which outpaces other student groups, is a reflection of the challenges of providing high-quality instruction to these students in a remote setting and the need to safely create opportunities for in-person learning.

Among demographic groups, Black students have seen the largest year-over-year decline in attendance, falling from 94.5 percent to 88 percent, which casts light on inequities that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Attendance among Latinx students has dropped from 95.4 percent to 92.1 percent; attendance among Asian students slightly declined from 97.3 percent to 96.9 percent; with attendance of white students remaining unchanged from the prior year (96.4 percent). 

More Than $14 Million in Additional Funding for CPS Classrooms

To ensure that schools have the resources to support all of their enrolled students, the district has provided an additional $14.3 million in new funding to 129 district-run schools that have experienced enrollment growth this school year. Under the district’s current budgeting approach, which was first put in place for the 2018-19 school year, no schools have lost funding as a result of enrollment declining this fall, but all schools that have additional students as of the 10th day of the school year have received additional resources to support students.

Chicago Public Schools serves 340,650 students in 638 schools. It is the nation’s third-largest school district.