Our schools aren’t ready to re­open and keep chil­dren and fam­i­lies safe

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - BY GINA CANEVA Gina Caneva is the li­brary me­dia spe­cial­ist for East Ley­den High School in Franklin Park. She taught in CPS for 15 years. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @Gi­naCaneva

With the start of a typ­i­cal school year right around the corner, dis­cus­sions are tak­ing place about what the even­tual re­turn will look like. As an ed­u­ca­tor and a mom, I am torn be­tween op­tions: Full re­mote learn­ing to en­sure that chil­dren and stu­dents stay healthy; or a hy­brid, with some in-per­son in­struc­tion.

But two ma­jor ques­tions loom in the minds of ev­ery ed­u­ca­tor and par­ent: Can our na­tion keep chil­dren and fam­i­lies healthy, even with lim­ited class­room teach­ing? If re­mote learn­ing con­tin­ues, will stu­dents lose too much ed­u­ca­tion­ally?

As a for­mer teacher in three Chicago public high schools on the South Side, I think the an­swer to the first ques­tion is a clear “No.” Our na­tion can’t keep our kids and their fam­i­lies healthy without strong fed­eral lead­er­ship, which is needed to have any chance of slow­ing the spread of coro­n­avirus.

A case in point: One of my gross­est days in CPS was the time a stu­dent threw up in the li­brary en­try­way. It was flu sea­son and only two jan­i­tors were work­ing that day, so it took around six hours for one of them to clean up the vomit. The stu­dent went to the nurse’s of­fice, but she wasn’t at our school that day, so he re­turned, still sick, for his li­brary les­son. Mean­while, stu­dents and teach­ers con­tin­ued to fill the room.

The cus­to­dian also found a dead mouse nearby.

Clean­li­ness has al­ways been a prob­lem in CPS, but schools will need far more clean­ing to keep the virus at bay. In CPS’ de­fense, their re­open­ing plan in­cludes hir­ing 400 ad­di­tional jan­i­tors. But that’s less than one per school. And there are no plans, be­yond those al­ready in place, to hire ad­di­tional school nurses.

CPS has two other big prob­lems: trans­porta­tion and con­tact trac­ing. Stu­dents of­ten travel to school across town, on public tran­sit. Who knows how many tran­sit riders will be wear­ing masks, or free of COVID-19? In the event of an out­break, stu­dents could bring the virus back to a com­mu­nity far from their school, mak­ing con­tact trac­ing vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble.

Other dis­tricts, too, have prob­lems. My chil­dren at­tend a sub­ur­ban ele­men­tary school that is giv­ing par­ents a choice be­tween re­mote learn­ing or half-day school. For two work­ing par­ents, manag­ing this be­comes a conundrum.

The sub­ur­ban school where I teach, East Ley­den High School, has a lot of the sup­ports that CPS does not — a full-time school nurse, enough jan­i­tors, and our own trans­porta­tion for our stu­dents. But the pos­i­tiv­ity rates on COVID-19 test­ing are high in the com­mu­ni­ties we serve, just as they are in Chicago, and our su­per­in­ten­dent re­cently an­nounced that we would be­gin the year with re­mote learn­ing for the sake of our stu­dents’ and fac­ulty’s health. Ex­cuses for re­open­ing too soon

But what about learn­ing loss and the so­called “achieve­ment gap”?

That’s an in­ter­est­ing ar­gu­ment, given that our coun­try has for decades failed to tackle the prob­lems of sum­mer learn­ing loss among low-in­come chil­dren and the glar­ing in­equities among our schools. If we re­ally cared, all of our schools would have enough teach­ers to lower class sizes and ad­e­quate re­sources like up-to-date text­books. We would have a year-round school sched­ule and pro­vide birth-to-5 day care free.

In­stead, some of our lead­ers use this ar­gu­ment to push for re­open­ing schools be­fore they are ready.

Mean­while, Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence ar­gued re­cently that many stu­dents rely on school for meals. This is true: In 2018, ac­cord­ing to the USDA, the Na­tional School Lunch Pro­gram served free or low-priced lunch to 29.7 mil­lion chil­dren daily.

But therein lies the prob­lem: Chil­dren de­pend on schools to eat. Shouldn’t a wealthy coun­try and its wealthy em­ploy­ers en­sure that fam­i­lies have enough money to feed their chil­dren?

“Schools must open so par­ents can work.” “Schools must open so the econ­omy can re­turn.” “Schools must open so chil­dren can eat.” “Schools must open so chil­dren can learn.”

We all un­der­stand the ur­gency and the need. But those of us in ed­u­ca­tion also un­der­stand that our public schools don’t have ad­e­quate re­sources to do so.

If schools do re­open, many of us will go back to the class­room and send our own chil­dren off to school, know­ing we are guinea pigs put in harm’s way in an ex­per­i­ment poised to fail without ex­treme in­ter­ven­tions.

I want to be hope­ful, but those in­ter­ven­tions aren’t hap­pen­ing at the scale that is needed. So I fear the worst, for our chil­dren, ed­u­ca­tors, and fam­i­lies.

J. SCOTT AP­PLE­WHITE/AP PHOTO

School buses are lined up at a main­te­nance fa­cil­ity in a Vir­ginia school dis­trict. Par­ents and ed­u­ca­tors have plenty of ques­tions about in-per­son learn­ing, sub­ur­ban teacher Gina Caneva writes.

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