Scrabble tiles spell "Make Plan"

Chicago Public Schools’ Failure to Plan Is Failing Families

Once again, drama is flaring over Chicago Public Schools’ management of the pandemic.  In the city of Chicago, more than 330,000 children are not learning today because last night, teachers voted to stay home. In an email to parents, time-stamped 11:40 p.m. Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said, “There will be no in-person OR remote instruction tomorrow, and parents should not plan to send children to school.” The email included a list of Safe Haven emergency child care centers and a note that Chicago Park District field houses will be open to care for children ages 6 and up.  

This email arrived less than four hours after a press conference in which Martinez told the public that if children arrive at a building, they will be taken in. It’s a small but significant example of the confusing, mixed messages from the district that have left parents frustrated for nearly two years.

Parents are understandably furious over CPS leadership’s staggering lack of advance planning in the face of Omicron.  Before winter break, CPS sent 150,000 Covid tests to families in hard-hit communities, promising results back by the start of school if families sent back tests by December 28. But the effort was futile. Without a real plan for collection, FedEx drop boxes overflowed and tests spilled out onto sidewalks. Unsurprisingly, a week later 25,000 tests were declared “invalid” and could not be processed. As the vice chair of preventative medicine for Northwestern University’s medical school told CBS Chicago, the five-day delay from testing to school start, which meant children could easily be exposed between testing and return to school, threw the whole idea into question from the get-go. The foolishness of trying to collect mail-in tests during the holiday postal rush was just icing on the cake.

Mayor Lightfoot, This One’s on You

Unfortunately, this is just the latest eye-catching failure we’ve seen from CPS. The district’s long-standing problems with planning also set the stage for the substitute shortage and the lack of transportation for students with IEPs. The bulk of the responsibility for solving those planning problems lies squarely on the shoulders of CPS leadership and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

If ever there was a moment to ensure that schools in underserved neighborhoods received gap-filling levels of resources, starting with PPE and moving up to capital spending on long-deferred ventilation upgrades, that moment arrived in March 2020. If ever there was a moment to ensure the most vulnerable children received first dibs on buses to school and tutoring, that moment arrived in September 2021.

So far, CPS has done little-to-nothing to move the equity needle on any of these fronts.

As a longtime observer of the district and a former CPS parent, it amazes me that district and city leaders cannot look at this situation through the eyes of families facing the greatest challenges right now and plan accordingly.

If Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS leadership had been planning all along through the eyes of my next-door neighbors—a family with a mom fighting cancer and a young autistic child eligible for bus service to school—how would our situation be different?

Would masks and hand sanitizer have gone out to families as part of  free meal distribution in the early months of the pandemic? They would have, could have and should have. Would CPS and CTU have encouraged teachers to make front-porch visits to students in spring 2020, especially students with IEPs? They might well have: some teachers did that on their own. 

Would summer 2020 have been a real opportunity for planning a safe return to school? Could the district have developed a robust mix of online and in-person learning, so families could choose the modality that best met their needs? It would have been much more possible had leadership stepped up and done the planning. But no CPS planning and no partnership with CTU happened that summer. Ever since, families have been caught in the crossfire between the district–more bluntly, the mayor–and the union.

Families Still Need Safety Assurances and Tools for Remote Learning

Sure, hindsight is 20/20. But since March 17, 2020, the district has continually failed to meet the two most basic requirements families need for their children to get through the pandemic safely and able to learn: access to remote learning and consistently reliable Covid mitigation when in person.  While the district’s initial push to beef up its available devices scored good deals, as rated by technology experts, a campaign contributor secured a no-bid contract and delivered older devices not always well-suited to the demands of remote classrooms. Now, more than a year later, CPS has not finished providing students with the devices they need for remote learning.  

Looking beyond mere access to devices, it is clear that since last February. CPS has insisted that the vast majority of students attend school in person. The tiny Virtual Academy, created to serve medically fragile students, has been difficult for parents to access.  As one parent told Chalkbeat Chicago, “This is not how you execute a project. It all looks confusing and chaotic … how can parents possibly make decisions?”

It has been clear since last year that reopening schools would also entail toggling between in-person and remote without warning. Everyone in the district must be ready to switch between the two modalities at any time.

If we all know that, why is CPS still struggling to provide both ways of learning to all families? 

Yes, supply chains have been a problem. Yes, we have had to wade through a thicket of uncertainty and changing medical guidance as the virus mutated. But at heart, the district chose not to do what was necessary. CPS walked away from figuring out how to provide quality virtual learning when needed. The district also dropped the ball on surveillance testing, contact tracing and ensuring uniform Covid mitigation practices across the system. Indeed, this is not how you execute a project.

Quit Arguing and Start Planning

It’s time to stop wasting energy arguing about whether people’s fears of Covid are reasonable or over-the-top. Instead, focus on providing a consistently well-mitigated, quality education experience.

By setting our sights on what works best for the most vulnerable—families at highest risk from COVID-19 and whose children, like all our children, deserve the best education possible in challenging circumstances—we can stay focused and open to creative solutions. If high-risk families need KN95 masks for their kids, let’s get them. And, let’s get them out of the warehouse before the first day back from break.

If high-risk families need virtual learning, let’s make it happen. If need be, CPS should contract with experienced online learning providers. And let’s get all this in place before the next wave or the next variant or the next crisis.

I hope Mayor Lightfoot won’t get so absorbed in fighting with CTU that she misses the bigger picture. Most CPS families want both the safest possible physical environment and the most-supportive learning environment for their children. After two years, many families still aren’t anywhere near getting what they want. It’s way past time to deliver better, equitably.

The only thing we know for sure about 2022 is that surprises lie ahead. To meet every surprising moment, CPS and City Hall must plan through the eyes of the city’s hardest-hit families. Only then will we all benefit.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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