Chicago

Failing grades and low attendance: More proof we’d better reopen schools

With all that the public has learned about the many shortcomings of remote learning, no one should be surprised by the latest data showing just how severely Chicago schoolchildren are struggling during the pandemic.

The alarming news from the Chicago Public Schools, as reported on Thursday by Nader Issa of the Sun-Times, is that kids are failing classes more and attending school less, especially high school students.

Elementary students are receiving “F” grades at double the rate of last year. Black and Latino students are receiving significantly more “F” grades. High school attendance has declined by 4.3%, and elementary school attendance is down by 0.9%.

Add this to the growing mountain of evidence that reopening schools must be a priority, locally and nationally. The only question is how, not if.

If we fail to do so, the educational and economic impact could be enormous, as a new analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco warns. Thousands more students could drop out, the study concludes, and this would mean fewer high school graduates enrolling in college, and down the line, lower lifetime earnings and lower job productivity among the young people affected by closures today.

The closing of high schools during the pandemic is even being blamed for a surge in carjackings in Chicago and across the country. “With many schools closed for in-person education, school-aged youths with free time — some as young as 12-15 — are committing a large portion of the increase in carjackings,” the Police Executive Research Forum asserts.

Back to school — real school

As it stands, we can understand why failing grades are up and attendance is down. Many young people, frustrated by the strictures and inadequacies of remote learning, have likely just given up.

“We’re tired of staring at screens for hours,” Dayana Martinez, an eight-grader at a CPS school, said Wednesday at a City Hall protest to demand improvements to the district’s remote learning policies. “We are tired of not having access to someone to talk to, like a counselor, all while trying to balance our grades with a fear of failing and feeling like we are unsure of what our future looks like.”

The best remedy, as Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson continues to argue, is to reopen schools so kids are not stuck staring at computer screens and have easier access to counselors.

Thousands of CPS elementary school students are due to return to classrooms two days a week beginning March 1, joining preschoolers and some special needs students who already have returned.

But a majority of CPS families have chosen, at least for now, to continue with remote learning. That’s why so much is at stake with a safe, smooth reopening. Parents want to see for themselves that it’s possible for their children to return to school safely — real school — where their educational and social needs can best be met.

The sooner CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union can agree on how to safely reopen high schools, the better. The challenges undoubtedly will be greater, since high schools have more students and those students move from class to class. We’re betting, though, that both sides learned lessons from the unnecessarily acrimonious negotiations over reopening elementary schools. Chicago’s young people cannot afford a repeat of those mistakes.

“We have children experiencing anxiety, depression, weight gain and even more serious symptoms that signal remote learning is not for everyone,” Carol Deely, a mother of a CPS junior, told the School Board on Wednesday.

Too much screen time?

Research has shown that too much screen time can create difficulties for children of all ages. Language skills may fail to improve. Sleep is disrupted. Exercise is limited. All the same, we’re inclined to agree with Jackson that instructional time should not be reduced. It can’t possibly be good, in the long run, for kids to lose time with their teachers.

But there are ways to make virtual learning less taxing, such as having students do more hands-on projects on their own, that CPS ought to promote.

In the end, as we have said time and again, CPS should give all parents the option to send their children back to school. That’s where the real work — making up for all the learning lost during the pandemic — will take place.

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