CHICAGO _ After a month of remote learning, Idalia Rizvic was getting headaches, feeling stressed and struggling to finish her schoolwork early enough to hang out with her family before bedtime.
So last week, the eighth grader at Boone Elementary in West Rogers Park in Chicago started an online petition to shorten the virtual school day.
"Covid has been a stressful time for all, and online school adds onto that," Idalia wrote. "We still get the same amount of work, and 'homework' has lost its purpose."
After spring's abrupt transition to remote learning, many students indicated they wanted more live instruction and engagement. But for some, stricter schedules this year have been too much. As families and educators wait for Chicago Public Schools to say whether the second quarter will bring students back to classrooms, many feel that either way, something needs to change.
Idalia's mother, Senada Rizvic, said the past month has been "too much screen time, less sleep, more headache."
During the school day, Idalia said she's typically glued to her computer from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., often late into the evening to finish homework. Like many of her classmates, she feels more comfortable with her camera off. While some un-mute themselves to speak during class, most just use the chat, she said.
"Online school has made my anxiety go up a lot," Idalia said. " ... This time has been really difficult on a lot of my peers' mental health."
Some teachers have been supportive of the petition, while others have told Idalia how many things have to change before her suggestion could be possible, she said.
A Suder Montessori teacher wrote on the petition, "We can't imagine how it feels to be a middle schooler in this time, so the least we can do is amplify their voice."
One student wrote, "Help me."
A petition started by a Senn High School student seeking a half-day class schedule cited research on the effects of too much screen time. If students must have seven-hour remote learning days, the petition states, they shouldn't be assigned homework.
"I, as well as many other students I've talked to have already been getting headaches, sore necks and backs, and strained eyes every single day," the student wrote. "Mentally, we feel exhausted, unmotivated, and isolated."
Another, anonymous petition to shorten the day states, "With COVID-19 cases still rising it's clear that it's much safer to stay home, but 8 hours of staring at the screen is not mentally and physically healthy for students."
But not all families are on the same page in that regard. Another anonymous group, "Parents for In-Person Learning," is petitioning CPS and city officials to reopen schools entirely.
A parent to two Mozart Elementary students, Gabrielle Wilson, started a different petition by declaring remote learning so far "a disaster."
"The expectations from the district put upon students and the working parents of this city are unrealistic," Wilson wrote. " ... We cannot forgo our sources of income to be tethered to our young and diverse learner's Chromebooks."
She proposed that all live classes take place in the morning, so parents have more flexibility to help their children with other schoolwork. Wilson also spoke at the September Board of Education meeting, and days later withdrew her children from CPS and is home-schooling them. One child was crying at least once most days, and the other would hide under a desk. They had different lunch times, which was difficult to manage.
"I decided I couldn't continue with the way things were," Wilson said. "My kids usually love school, and they were having meltdowns every day."
Now, they start school around 9 a.m., finish by noon and go on field trips or play outside. To make it work, she ordered more books and moved their school days to Tuesday through Saturday, because she has graduate classes all day Monday. They have been following the same math curriculum, and she added some science activities. "I cut the time in half and we get more done," she said.
Wilson said her kids' teachers seemed understanding, and the school let her know that she could re-enroll if in-person classes resume. If it's an option, she said she'd likely send them back.
"I think the social benefits that the children get from being in school outweigh the risks of them contracting COVID," Wilson said.
Scheduling has been a thorny issue since the beginning of the school year.
While the Chicago Teachers Union contract gives teachers a vote on the adoption of class schedules, CTU chief of staff Jennifer Johnson said the model schedules approved this year were developed for in-person learning.
In light of the shift to remote learning, CPS Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade tweeted that "if schools want to re-vote and the union agrees and won't file a grievance because this violates the (collective bargaining agreement), we are all set."
But Johnson said the union members didn't formally agree to new votes because they want sample schedules designed for remote learning, with less screen time and more time for professional development, helping families, planning and collaboration.
The outcome of another CPS labor dispute with CTU could also affect the reopening of schools, and even if they do, remote learning is likely to continue in some capacity.
CPS leaders don't believe reducing live instruction is in students' best interests, according to a statement provided by spokeswoman Emily Bolton.
"Chicago Public Schools has implemented a remote learning plan that creates a more consistent, high-quality learning experience for students that guarantees live instruction every day, which is something parents indicated they wanted," Bolton said. "Strengthened standards and structures were needed to ensure students have access to the daily live instruction they deserve and we are deeply sympathetic to the challenges and competing priorities families are balancing during this unprecedented time."
Under the fall framework, students in kindergarten and up get at least three hours of live instruction from their teacher. With that, along with small group activities and independent learning, the district expects students to participate for the length of a typical school day, Monday through Friday.
While schools have to follow minimum guidelines, the statement said they have "significant flexibility when scheduling" and are encouraged to break up live and non-live learning time, which doesn't have to involve computers.
On Tuesday, CPS CEO Janice Jackson said a plan for next quarter will be out "very soon."
Leticia Medellin, a kindergarten teacher at Disney Magnet School, said she hopes to hear a decision in time to set up her classroom if she needs to.
"Once they decided we were remote (in the fall), I didn't set up a classroom, so my classroom is pretty much in disarray," she said.
If remote learning continues, the schedule needs to be revamped and more flexible, especially for younger students, Medellin said.
"The back and forth of signing in and signing out of their synchronous time and asynchronous time is a little daunting for parents, especially for the 5-year-olds," Medellin said. "If they want to do the 180 minutes, do it like the first three hours in the morning and then in the afternoon just let them be 5-year-olds. ... They try to make it like a real school day, and remotely, there is no way we can do that."
Guadalupe Rivera, a fourth-grade teacher at Hurley Elementary in West Lawn, said her colleagues are trying to incorporate student and parent feedback without sacrificing learning. For example, requests for longer breaks led her to switch from 60-minute to 30-minute lesson plans.
"I'm online with you for 60 minutes, but (students) have to have a 15-minute break, so now it's 45 minutes and we spend five of those minutes waiting for things to load," Rivera said. "Time gets cut in such little bits that it's just hard to get through an entire lesson."
Rivera started the quarter reviewing third-grade standards and working up to fourth grade.
"Are kids going to be at fifth-grade level standards by the end of the year? No way," she said. "I don't know how it will affect students long term. Teachers are going to keep trying and working on whatever grade level students are at."
Worries about a lost year, appreciation for teachers' efforts and a range of remote learning experiences came up during a recent town hall hosted by Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education.
At schools with a universal lunch time, neighbors have enjoyed playing together outside. Some families liked schedules that alternated blocks of live and non-live learning.
But some also said they've found that expectations among schools are inconsistent or assume a parent is always around. While some see their children struggling with heavy workloads and high expectations, others question the quality of material. Parents are noticing regression in students with special education programs.
And there have still been reports of families who need internet or computers.
With such disparate school buildings and resources, it's hard to make plans that work for everyone, Medellin said. When she worked at Morrill Elementary in Chicago Lawn, the air vents were old and didn't work well, she said, but Disney is more updated.
"I think the problem with CPS is we are so big and not all school buildings are made the same. Some of them are very old," she said. "So that's where the inequity kind of falls. Yes, I would feel fine going back, but I can't say that for another school."
With Medellin teaching and her daughter, Kayla, learning from home, their internet has its moments. It can also get loud, said Kayla, a sophomore at Ogden International High School.
"Sometimes it's distracting, but it's also fun to hear what she's teaching to her kids," Kayla said.
Subjects such as history and English are proving easier to learn online than math and science, Kayla said.
"Honestly, I don't like remote learning," Kayla said. "It's hard to focus, and I feel better in school because I have a better understanding when I see it in person than on a screen."
After two to three hours, her eyes start to hurt and focus wanes. She also misses socializing with friends at school.
"I just want to finish high school as well as experience high school, but since remote learning, I can't necessarily do that for sophomore year and probably other years as the virus continues," she said.
Idalia, the eighth grader who made the petition, is starting to navigate the freshman application process without traditional campus visits. She wants to go to a high school with a good theater club. Boone's group has continued meeting online, working on Halloween-themed scripts. But it has been hard to find time for other hobbies.
"Online learning is a new thing, and when the world has been going to shambles, something new on top of that is so much stress," Idalia said.
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