Mutual Aid

A Safe and Equitable Reopening Plan Must Center Communities: Look to Mutual Aid for How

This morning, Chicago Public Schools launches the first stage of its reopening plan under a cloud of controversy. District leaders are pushing the reopening of school buildings right after record-high pandemic travel. They justify this by saying that learning in person is a matter of equity, yet the schools that will be welcoming back the most students are far whiter and far wealthier than the district average. 

As a CPS teacher and a parent, I don’t feel safety or equity is well-served by the current reopening plan. But parents do need support with childcare, and kids do need social interaction.

What if schools followed the lead of mutual aid groups and partnered with the community to support families in assisting each other? Last spring, when schools closed, my neighbors and I here in West Ridge got to work. We set up a help hotline that operates in seven languages, has over 100 volunteers and has redistributed tens of thousands of dollars to people in need. 

Community organizers also began circulating a needs survey that collected information on a family’s size, language, allergies, COVID exposure level, and childcare or socialization needs. It also had a free response section for families to elaborate on what they hoped for their child and what they were able to offer to a pod. Everyone who filled out the form was able to view the responses and freely connect to arrange mutual childcare. 

In a Crisis, Our Community Pod Stepped Up

I participated in the neighborhood-led process and was lucky enough to find two other families to join ours in a “pandemic pod.” One of the families I had only met in person once, but we were also connected through Facebook and mutual friends. Still, we were all a little nervous in our first, outdoor, masked meeting. 

We settled on a rotation of the kids, one to two days a week per family with all five kids to allow us each to catch our breath for three to four days a week. I will not say that it has been easy, but it has been heartwarming and the kids are thriving! Aside from their remote learning lessons, they have been learning to share with and care for each other. Even after seeing each other all week, they still ask for playdates on the weekend. And even though we had to put our academic pod on pause in November due to rising COVID numbers, our newfound pod community has held together.

Last month, I had all five kids at the park playing on the grass when I got a call from my husband, the kind of call that leaves you both stunned and panicked. He was in his car, 40 minutes away and needed to get to the ER. I called one of the other pod moms, and she rushed to the park to take care of the five kids while I left. 

My husband had a serious brain bleed caused by an autoimmune disease of the blood vessels. His doctor said what he went through is typically “immediately deadly.” I wonder what might have happened if I didn’t have this pod, which now feels like family. 

What if, in the middle of a pandemic, I had not known where to leave my kids? I would have taken them with me, which would have meant walking home from the park, packing a bag of snacks and chargers and tablets, and all the things that come with getting a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old out the door for a long drive. I might not have made it in time. 

Sure, not every family will need to lean on their pod for a life-or-death emergency, but our communities are stronger when we are connected. Our mental health is better when we do not have to weather the storms alone and our kids’ mental health is better when our cups are full. Often, our school-aged children know each other quite well, but parents, especially working parents, can be more disconnected from the school community. We have a great opportunity to bring parents and caregivers together.

Here’s How CPS Could Try Mutual Aid

Over the weekend, while waiting for calls to come through on my hotline shift and reviewing the data about which families are and are not planning to return to schools in-person, I wondered what it would look like for CPS to harness community strengths along the lines of what my neighborhood has tried to do.

Imagine a school connecting two families with similarly-aged kids whose caregivers had opposite work schedules. With families’ permission, the school could run basic background checks for the families and connect them so that the kids could be at one house in the morning and walk over to the other home in the afternoon. This would allow parents in both households to be able to work and give their kids social interaction outside of their own home, with significantly lower COVID exposure than a pod of 15 kids from different households whose siblings are interacting with a completely different set of 15 other kids at school. If schools helped facilitate these connections, the district might be convinced to make common-sense changes to our current remote learning schedule, like a common lunch and recess for all of CPS, so kids in the same home or pod can eat and play together.

HIstorically, the most common avenue for families and communities to connect with schools is through fundraising, which has only led to deeper inequities. Harnessing the real power of communities would require schools to truly connect with the families they serve. It would shift the role of district networks away from enforcing mandates and toward advocating for the area they serve. A model like this just might get us closer to that ever-elusive goal: educational equity.

A Mutual Aid Approach Could Bring Benefits Without Risking Lives

A framework that centers community would undoubtedly improve our children’s mental health, increase outlets for social interaction, and meet parents’ need for childcare without forcing buildings open under unsafe conditions. 

With that established, schools could move towards increasing learning outcomes, providing a constantly staffed Google Meet link for caregivers to ask questions on how to support their children’s academic work, using school buses as mobile libraries with scheduled stops and one pod aboard at a time, or redistributing resources so that all kids have access to hands-on materials, not just those with well-funded PTAs. 

What’s more, perhaps while schools are relying on partnership from parents to support student mastery of academic standards, parents could rely on schools to acknowledge the other learning that happens at home, by providing credits to students for taking on increased responsibilities like tutoring younger siblings, preparing meals, or volunteering with local aid groups. 

It might not be simple, but it is possible to imagine the impact we can have on families and communities when we leverage the reach of CPS. This is how we start our path to equity.

Photo credit: Sarah-Ji of Love + Struggle Photos. 

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Halle Quezada Rasmussen

Halle Quezada Rasmussen teaches bilingual third-graders in Chicago Public Schools. She lives in Chicago's West Ridge neighborhood with her husband and two children.

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