Discussions of in-person learning continue with no finalized decisions


University of Chicago Laboratory Schools

Discussions about returning students to in-person learning continue, but safety concerns remain a priority.

Amon Gray, Assistant Editor

Update Jan. 19, 2021, 9:10 p.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the administration had concluded that students’ mental health had improved during distance learning. This story has been updated to correct inaccuracies about the survey analysis and conclusion as well as funding for a tent. Additionally, other information has been correctly attributed, and a quotation has been corrected.


Interim Director David Magill shared possibilities of expanding in-person learning to lower school students and resuming extracurricular activities while stressing safety priorities at a remote town hall Jan. 7. 

The current plan for returning to school entails having lower school students who wish to return to in person learning, to be able to do so after assessing families’ willingness to return. According to Mr. Magill, the plan for middle and high school is to return next year or sooner depending on the speed of vaccine distribution.

Mr. Magill said at the town hall the vaccine will be instrumental in ensuring teachers feel safe returning from distance learning to in-person school. 

“Right now, we have a pretty robust educational program going on,” Mr. Magill said in an interview. “It’s not as good as being in person, but it’s about as good as you can get in terms of being online.”

One important parameter in the planning process is maintaining five feet of social distancing. When lower school students return, they will remain in homeroom groups with a maximum of 20 students in classrooms throughout the historic campus, while funding is being investigated for a 50-by-60-foot heated tent on Scammon Lawn.

High school principal Paul Beekmeyer indicated during the town hall that middle and high school administrators are examining the benefits and drawbacks of a hybrid approach. Administrators and faculty are in the process of analyzing and reflecting on the data about distance learning, which was collected in a survey from nearly 400 students before winter break.

According to Mr. Magill, while the social aspects of returning may be helpful for students’ mental health, there are still health risks, and academic rigor may have to be given up. 

U-High students may also return to school in February for extracurricular programs. These would give students an opportunity to interact in person, which distance learning has not allowed for.

In making these decisions, faculty and administrators have been considering the concerns of faculty, parents and students as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and data about distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines. Teachers and administrators are part of phase 1B of the vaccine distribution plan, which began moving forward this week. Vaccinating teachers will be an important part of ensuring that the transition back to in-person learning is smooth and safe.

“No real decisions have been made at this point in time,” Mr. Magill said. “What we are doing is planning and looking at a couple of options. We want to get back to school. That is our ultimate goal, but we want to get back safely.”