By Patrick Forrest
As virtual summer school is set to begin for thousands in Chicago, more than 100 current students and recent graduates are calling on Chicago Public Schools to stop what they call the use of a racially bias criteria in its grading policy for remote learning.
In a letter dated June 29 to CPS CEO Janice Jackson, youth organized by the Chicago Student Pandemic Response (CSPR) as well as other students, pointed to the racial gaps in online learning stemming from health, employment, and housing disparities during COVID-19.
By disqualifying students who cannot complete their work online from receiving letter grades, CPS’ grading policy disproportionately penalizes Black and brown students who are not able to participate virtually at the same level as they did during in-person instruction.
“Last semester, I had to balance online learning with my job as an essential worker at a grocery store during this pandemic,” said Avery Sims, a CSPR student organizer and rising senior at Westinghouse Prep. “CPS should be supporting Black students like me, not punishing us.”
The demand letter echoed by thousands of students who signed a related petition in May, outlines the barriers to participation in online learning that Black and brown CPS students disproportionately face during the COVID-19 crisis: physical health disparities, inequitable access to internet and devices, essential work demands, expanded caregiver responsibilities, housing insecurity, and enhanced stress and trauma.
“I’m hopeful that, with the additional stress and anxiety that the pandemic has caused, that we can get the support,” Sims said. “Alongside the strike that the teacher’s union had earlier in the school year, hopefully there’s enough light on this that something can now come out of it.”
As a result, CPS data show that online learning participation rates for Black and brown students have lagged far behind that of white students during the school shutdown. For example, 93 percent of white CPS students submitted at least one graded assignment online the week of May 11, compared to only 77 percent of Black students and 85 percent of Latinx students.
These statistics directly led to the implementation of the Chicago Connected program, which would allocate $50 million to provide free Internet service over the course of four years. The new initiative would be aimed at bridging the digital divide by focusing on students most in need, like those suffering from homelessness, kids with special needs, and those who are free lunch eligible.
“Inequitable access to the Internet is a nationwide issue and the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that internet service can no longer be viewed as a luxury,” said CPS CEO Dr. Janice K. Jackson. “To build on our students’ academic progress, we are launching an unprecedented effort to provide stable, high-speed internet access to 100,000 CPS students over the next four years.”
Despite the undertaking by the city, youth activists pushing for changes believe much damage could already be done without retroactive change for the grading quarter which has already ended.
“We understand that learning must continue. At the same time, thousands of students are simply unable to document or even complete work at the same level they could two months ago,” students Finley Williams and Toby Straus wrote in an op-ed, which was shared by the Chicago Teacher’s Union. “The solution, then, is not to strongarm students into performing better, but to adapt CPS standards to accommodate the grave inequities that thousands of students confront.”
Under the current policy, CPS students whose grades fell or who were unable to engage in online learning can earn at best a Pass, even if they complete all of the paper packets assigned by CPS. As a result, the group believes the policy does not legitimately reward student effort or reflect student achievement.
“At the most basic level, there needs to be a more comprehensive discussion with who is affected by these things,” Zachary Vanderslice a graduating senior Walter Payton College Prep said. “Almost inevitably there will need to be changes that our brought into the next semester as well.”
According to attorneys at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which represents the students, the grading policy violates the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003 by discriminating in its effect against Black and brown students.
“CPS’ grading policy essentially threatens to penalize students of color for the systemic barriers they face to accessing remote learning,” said Senior Counsel Amy Meek at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.
Additionally, students are pushing for an expansion to school-based mental health services beginning in the fall in order to deal with traumas experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Instead of funding police in schools, CPS should be listening to those of us who are directly impacted by these policies,” said Nitsia Flores, a CSPR student organizer and graduating senior at Curie High School. “We want more mental health services and support, not racist grading penalties.”
According to the demands letter sent Jackson and Mayor Lightfoot, a response has been requested before close of business on July 7.