Chicago Fed Insights

Reimagining Education: Chicago Public Schools During and After Covid-19

August 7, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to in-person education. To discuss the challenges facing Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Fed convened a panel of expert practitioners and researchers as part of its Project Hometown initiative on Monday, August 3. The panel explored the needs of different student populations, while encouraging education leaders to use this disruption to reimagine what schools can look like when in-person education resumes.

The event was moderated by Cassie Walker Burke, Chicago bureau chief at Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news outlet that focuses on public education. Burke invited panelists to share their perspectives on the scope and scale of the challenges facing Chicago Public Schools. Maurice Swinney, Chief Equity Officer of Chicago Public Schools, pointed to preexisting inequities in the school system that have long affected Black students, Brown students, English learners, homeless students, and other vulnerable children. “The Covid pandemic is happening in the middle of an ongoing pandemic that is racial injustice,” Swinney stated. As one example, Swinney noted that Black and Brown children are often treated with suspicion, even at school, which impacts their ability to learn and creates opportunity gaps.

The abrupt school closures in March exacerbated many of these educational inequities and also made it more difficult, if not impossible, for schools to meet the nonacademic needs of their most vulnerable students, including those experiencing temporary or chronic homelessness. The pandemic has put in relief that schools do much more than teach academics—they provide food, washing machines, dental care, and a haven from stress and trauma, noted Micere Keels, associate professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. She underscored the importance of examining the resources the school system needs to support and engage children in a learning community, both during this period of disruption and when schools reopen their doors.

The pandemic has also affected the needs of Latinx students and their families, who face a complexity of health factors, as Rebecca Vonderlack Navarro, manager of education policy and research at the Latino Policy Forum, described. Latinx neighborhoods have some of the highest coronavirus rates in the city, and intergenerational homes mean that children who return to school may put parents and grandparents at risk. For parents working low-wage hourly jobs, she said, taking two weeks off to care for a child who contracts Covid-19 poses a significant economic disruption. Limited access to healthcare magnifies these challenges for many families, and undocumented immigrants may have no access at all.

Navarro pointed to another challenge posed by the pandemic: young children, and English learners in particular, need authentic conversation, which is difficult to replicate in remote learning. Many English learners are in preschool through second grade, and their young age means long bouts of screen time may not be appropriate. With the possibility of losing a year or more of in-person instruction, Navarro urged educators to think creatively about how to meet the needs of young English language learners, as acquiring these language skills is critical to later academic success.

The shock of losing in-person education means that a lot of effort is going into restoring the system that was lost. But this, Keels pointed out, is “crisis thinking,” in which we focus “on restoring what we think we lost.” Instead, she urged educators not to waste this opportunity to think creatively about how to better serve all students, especially vulnerable students. Shantá Robinson, assistant professor at the University of Chicago, concurred, adding that we shouldn’t aim to get back to “normal” because pre-Covid normal was far from perfect. “Our imaginations shouldn’t be limited to what we know schools to be in the past,” Robinson said. Instead, we have a unique opportunity to “press the pause button on how we do education in this country and who we do education for.”

Panelists identified several themes to guide our thinking about how to do better for all students. One, the pandemic has exposed the importance of connection. In the absence of a personal student-teacher relationship, teachers can deliver information but students won’t learn, Keels said. Fostering this connection means attending to the social emotional needs of students, Robinson added, particularly students who have experienced trauma and marginalization. Both Robinson and Navarro encouraged thinking creatively about how these connections can be nurtured. It may mean actually meeting with families and asking them what they need to be successful as they define success, Robinson said. In the case of immigrant communities, Navarro suggested reaching out to trusted community organizations with language abilities to help build the relationship between families and schools.

The pandemic also provides an opportunity to reimagine what schools look like by recruiting Black and Latinx teachers, Robinson advocated, who are critical to the academic and social success of Black and Latinx students. Today’s poor job market means that many people in their 20s are out of work. This is an opportunity to go to them and ask if they would consider being a teacher, a school counselor, a school nurse—careers they may not have considered because of their own ambivalent experiences in school.

Finally, the panelists emphasized that it is imperative that our reimagining be guided by evidence-based research. Too often, Keels observed, people make decisions about education practices based on intuition or personal experience. Instead, she argued, we should systematically follow evidence about what practices best serve different groups of students. As an example, she pointed to the limited evidence that the presence of police increases safety at school and the considerable evidence that police presence triggers stress and increases students’ exposure to the criminal justice system, particularly for students of color. Keels and Navarro advocated consulting social workers, counselors, psychologists, medical experts, early childhood professionals, and others who can offer evidence-based practices to improve health, safety, inclusion, and learning.

Swinney concluded that drawing investment into our schools in service of the whole family and bringing together the learned wisdom from different fields to address historic inequities and current challenges has the ability to transform schooling, for today and tomorrow.


The views expressed in this post are our own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.

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