When will Chicago’s schools re­open? When Chicago par­ents think it’s safe

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION -

Chicago kids aren’t going back to school, not in brick-and­mor­tar school build­ings, un­til enough par­ents think it’s safe. It’s as sim­ple as that.

And right now, par­ents just are not there.

Noth­ing else — no tech­no­log­i­cal chal­lenges, COVID-19 data or re­luc­tance on the part of teach­ers — bet­ter ex­plains why the Chicago Pub­lic Schools on Wed­nes­day aban­doned plans for a hy­brid re­open­ing of the schools in Septem­ber. Fully 41% of el­e­men­tary school par­ents and 38% of high school par­ents, ac­cord­ing to a CPS sur­vey, said they would refuse to send their chil­dren back to school that soon.

Re­mote learn­ing, with no in-class in­struc­tion at all, will con­tinue at least un­til Novem­ber — when all the dy­nam­ics of this dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion are sure to play out again. Chicago’s best hope then is that the daily num­bers of new COVID-19 cases will be down, safety mea­sures for kids in class­rooms will be more trusted, and the Chicago Teach­ers Union will get on board with at least a par­tial re­open­ing of build­ings.

Blame the virus

In the mean­time, no, this is not great.

No­body can have much con­fi­dence in the qual­ity of re­mote learn­ing. We saw last spring how sec­ond-rate it can be.

But we also ap­pre­ci­ate — and we want to stress this — the po­si­tions be­ing taken by every­body in­volved.

Mayor Lori Light­foot and the lead­er­ship of CPS had no choice but to back off hy­brid in­struc­tion, which would have been part on­line and part in class­rooms. Lo­cal COVID-case num­bers have been on the rise and par­ents, as we say, are wary.

We un­der­stand why teach­ers, es­pe­cially those who are older, are re­luc­tant to risk their phys­i­cal safety. And they are not, as some CTU crit­ics have in­sisted, “es­sen­tial work­ers” dur­ing the pan­demic in the same way as po­lice of­fi­cers, doc­tors and nurses.

As for those re­luc­tant par­ents? Moms and dads will al­ways put their kids’ safety first.

A grow­ing num­ber of sub­ur­ban Chicago dis­tricts, for the ex­act same rea­sons, are mak­ing the same move.

“In a per­fect world, stu­dents would be in school more, not less,” CEO Jan­ice Jack­son said at a press con­fer­ence on Wed­nes­day. “We re­main com­mit­ted to get­ting kids back in school as quickly as pos­si­ble. I hope the health con­di­tions al­low us to do that on Novem­ber 6.”

COVID-19 creep­ing back

As Chicago Pub­lic Health Com­mis­sioner Ali­son Ar­wady ex­plained, the city is now in a “yel­low zone” of cau­tion when it comes to lev­els of COVID-19, see­ing more than 200 new cases a day but con­sid­er­ably fewer than 400. The city’s COVID-19 dash­board shows a seven-day av­er­age of 277 new cases per day plus a test pos­i­tiv­ity rate of 4.8%.

Should the city suc­ceed in push­ing that num­ber be­low 200, Ar­wady said, she would urge that the schools be fully re­opened. “I would have zero con­cerns about re­open­ing,” she said.

But on a num­ber of days in re­cent weeks, the daily new count in Chicago has ap­proached 400, the thresh­old of a more danger­ous zone. Many states are at­tempt­ing to bar en­try for peo­ple from other states that have per-capita COVID-19 rates that high.

A chal­lenge for teach­ers

Chicago has a lot of work to do to make re­mote learn­ing work bet­ter, and much of the pres­sure will be on CPS teach­ers. We be­lieve they are at least par­tially the rea­son Light­foot de­cided this week, rather than wait un­til later this month, to stick solely with re­mote learn­ing for now, though the mayor de­nies that. There’s no way the mayor failed to fac­tor in the threat of a teach­ers’ strike.

So now Chicago will be look­ing to those CPS teach­ers to lead the way in mak­ing re­mote learn­ing re­ally work.

For its part, the ad­min­is­tra­tion of CPS has an­nounced a num­ber of much-needed re­mote-learn­ing im­prove­ments, in­clud­ing daily vir­tual classes, small-group in­struc­tion and more of­fice hours for teach­ers to be avail­able for stu­dents. Let­ter grades will be the norm again. At­ten­dance will be mon­i­tored.

Mak­ing up for lost time

We urge CPS and CTU to be­gin plan­ning ways now to help kids down the road make up for lost learn­ing dur­ing the pan­demic. Sev­eral re­cent stud­ies have es­ti­mated that the av­er­age stu­dent has al­ready fallen months be­hind in their ed­u­ca­tion be­cause of re­mote learn­ing dur­ing these times. For Black and His­panic chil­dren, the learn­ing loss is likely worse, the stud­ies found.

The longer chil­dren in Chicago, as well as across the coun­try, don’t get traditiona­l in-class in­struc­tion, the worse it will be for them. Chicago should be look­ing at a longer school year to help kids catch up. There could be in­di­vid­ual learn­ing plans that re­flect each child’s in­creased needs.

As for right now, we en­cour­age par­ents to get deeply in­volved in their child’s re­mote learn­ing, as much as their work sched­ules per­mit. CPS is pro­vid­ing free in­ter­net and dig­i­tal de­vices for fam­i­lies that qual­ify fi­nan­cially. More than ever, par­ents must be the part­ners of their chil­dren’s teach­ers.

And the rest of us can do our part by wear­ing masks, keeping that six feet of so­cial dis­tanc­ing and avoid­ing crowds.

The best thing we can do for our chil­dren is slow the spread of COVID-19, mak­ing it pos­si­ble for city and sub­ur­ban schools to open sooner, fully and safely.

“Turn the curve the other way,” Ar­wady said. “We’ve done it be­fore. We can do it again.”

KAMIL KRZA­CZYN­SKI /AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Pro­test­ers hold signs against a now-scut­tled plan to re­open Chicago Pub­lic Schools in Septem­ber. The protest was staged by the Chicago Teach­ers Union on Mon­day.

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