Child in mask

Forget Remote Vs. Hybrid And Build Community for Kids and Families

I spend way too much time in Facebook groups for Chicago Public Schools parents. But hanging out there tells me the latest plot twists in the saga of the Chicago Public Schools 2020-21 school year have parents in a tailspin. Yesterday was the deadline for parents to tell the district whether they plan to return to school in the new year or continue with remote learning. Also yesterday, the Chicago Teachers Union filed a second legal challenge, hoping to put the brakes on a hybrid learning plan and force the district into substantive negotiations about health and safety precautions.

While all this sound and fury goes on, kids are getting hurt. There are the kids everyone talks about, but few people in positions of power really know: kids with IEPs who can’t get services they need through a screen, kids who have no adults around to help them stay on track with remote learning, kids who still lack internet access.

Then there are the kids we aren’t talking about enough—not all of whom are disadvantaged in the ways we usually talk about. It was heartbreaking to read comments from parents of only children who are starving for friends and social interaction. Loneliness and depression are real and can kill kids just as easily as Covid. As the mom of an only child during the pandemic, I know about this personally. It’s why we left CPS this year. Not every family with a kid at risk for self-harm or suicide in this time can choose a more supportive school environment.

Remote or Hybrid, Kids’ Lives Are at Risk

Let me be clear—whether we stay remote or go hybrid, there are life-threatening risks to kids. And launching the hybrid plan in February makes no sense from a public health or educational point of view. Right now Illinois is one of the top states in the U.S. for deaths from Covid, and it’s unclear whether we’re going to see a Thanksgiving-related surge. It’s far too early to tell what the state of community spread will be in February. But when the director of the Centers for Disease Control is warning this winter could be the worst public health disaster in U.S. history, I don’t need to spend time in the weeds about positivity rates and whether schools spread Covid or not. Asking teachers and kids to switch from their current groove, no matter how imperfect, into yet another uncharted territory also makes no sense.

But CPS must do more to help families and support kids’ learning and development. The remote learning taking place now does not cut it. Some kids do need to be face-to-face with teachers and peers. We need public education leaders to create in-person solutions that mitigate risks for adults as well as children to a point where it’s safe enough for at least some adults and kids to try them. We need a public school system that supports every kid.

There are ways to do this that go far beyond a “reopen the schools” approach. Let’s determine which of the newest-built CPS facilities have HVAC systems that can handle the high-quality filters necessary to filter indoor air, and open them for some students to use. Recently-opened high schools in Englewood and Back of the Yards could be opened to smaller groups of middle schoolers, for example, or to the high school students who most need in-person. Let’s partner with the Chicago Park District to increase the amount of learning space available and reduce the numbers of people in classrooms.

I want Chicago foundations to partner with CPS and with neighborhood youth agencies to create free pods of 10 students or fewer per adult. Our kids need and deserve more socialization and support. I know there are nonprofits doing this work all over the city, and I know they can’t reach all the kids who need them. Why can’t our city figure out how to put the power of CPS behind groups like MASK, the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club, or Port Ministries?

Right now, the district is providing a minuscule amount of supervised remote learning support in a handful of schools designated as “Child Learning Hubs.” At the very least, they need to expand those centers and staff them with people who can support children’s learning and social development. They need to provide top-of-the-line PPE and safety precautions—including sites with modern HVAC systems.  And yes, they need to negotiate with CTU to make it possible for teachers to volunteer to work in those hubs. I bet many would. 

Real Solutions Demand Partnership

The point of school is at least as much about community as it is about learning. It won’t be easy to make the changes we need to restore the community aspect of school, which families are starving for. It will involve addressing liability, possibly changing the school calendar and yes, actually negotiating with the CTU. From the point of view of Mayor Lightfoot and CEO Jackson, it will be a giant hassle. It’s really hard to get a huge system to break out of its usual ways of doing business. 

The district must think much, much harder about how to partner with families, teachers and school communities to create real solutions that work. Whether you want to call this “getting beyond remote versus hybrid” or “enhancing pandemic learning,” it needs to be done.  There will likely never be a better moment in our lifetimes for Chicago Public Schools to break out of the mold and do something truly innovative and good for kids.

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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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