Six-year old Emmanuel Johnson — he goes by Manny — is full of personality. He jokes that he’s 16 years old, and he demonstrates his knowledge of another language by counting to 10 in Spanish.
Manny is in kindergarten at Whittier Dual Language Magnet School near Pilsen, but instead of attending classes in the school, he’s learning remotely, along with 341,000 other Chicago Public Schools students.
Jada Humphrey is in seventh grade at Learn 8 Middle School. She’s also learning remotely — right across the hall from Manny.
“Sometimes, it’s not going to be a lot of people at home, and they don’t want me to stay home by myself, so they just want me to come here. I like coming here,” she said.
She’s referring to Breakthrough Urban Ministries’ Nettie Bailey Student Achievement Program. Breakthrough provides a host of community programs, but its typical after-school program has been expanded to include daytime remote learning support for 60 students, grouped into pods of 10.
In the second and third grade classroom, teachers are juggling schedules from six different elementary schools and 10 different teachers.
Associate Director Ana Pyper says her staff has become a go-between for schools and families.
“Our teachers here communicate with the teachers on a daily basis, asking, ‘Is their assignment turned in, did you get it? Sorry, they’re running late,’” she said. “And just kind of checking in to make sure everything is OK on their end.”
Pyper says in the early days of remote learning, students struggled socially and emotionally with the adjustment.
“Almost like shorter fuses: kids were getting irritated quicker and crying faster and just having a shorter span to deal with difficult things, or to have stamina to be able make it through the day,” Pyper said.
Since the beginning of the school year in September, parents across the district had been cobbling together ways to ensure their students are participating in remote learning.
For many, that means working from home while also being their child’s teacher. For others it means forming a pod with friends or neighbors — or even hiring a tutor to make sure the learning happens.
Many of the Breakthrough students’ parents are essential workers. For their parents, community organizations like this are the answer.
In Auburn-Gresham, community activist Tamar Manasseh converted old shipping containers into the MASK On The Block Academy to support students and families.
“So, you have the Instacart drivers, you have the Uber Eats delivery people, you have the people who stock the shelves at Mariano’s and Walgreens,” Manasseh said. “That’s who’s working in this neighborhood. So these parents who once used school for child care, they don’t have that anymore. So now they’re faced with, either, they don’t go to work, or they lose their jobs, or leave their kids at home alone. What kind of choice is that? That’s impossible!”
Manasseh fears a widening of the achievement gap that already exists between Black and Brown students, and White students in CPS.
CPS leadership points to that expanding gap as it rolls out plans to reopen schools.
First-quarter data from the district shows attendance among Black students dropped the most of any ethnic group at 5%, compared to the district-wide decline of 2.9%.
And Black and Latino students saw the largest increase in failing grades: from 2.3% of Black elementary students last year, to 6.6% this year.
Latino students saw an increase from 2.1% to 5.2%.
Manasseh fears one crisis begetting another.
“COVID has created an astronomical, an astounding health care crisis. But, on the other side of this, it’s going to be an educational crisis unlike anything America has ever seen before,” Manasseh said.