Trust Your Struggle

If We Can’t Trust CPS to Take Parents Seriously, How Can Parents Trust Them With Kids Next Year?

Like every other parent in the Chicago Public Schools, I’m trying to wrap my head around what next school year might look like, both for everybody and for my own family in particular. So far, the struggle has produced more questions than answers.

We don’t know much yet about how CPS will handle next school year. Late last week the district emailed parents to give a heads-up that they will be using surveys and focus groups to hear our thoughts about next year and what we think is necessary to keep our children safe, supported and able to learn. That’s something, but it’s far from sufficient to rebuild trust in a district that has a long track record of not taking parent and community input seriously.

In that email, the district also made a few baseline commitments:

  • Everyone will need to wear face coverings, and the district will provide a limited set to students and staff members at the start of the school year;
  • Hand sanitizer will need to be readily available throughout buildings, and the district has begun procuring sanitizer for all schools;
  • Stringent cleaning and disinfection protocols will be in place;
  • And students and staff will receive daily temperature checks.

But I’ll be very surprised if anyone can find a CPS parent who trusts the district to uphold even these very basic health and safety measures. I’ve been a CPS parent for six years now, and have watched the district closely for more than two decades. Nothing is uniform. No policy is uniformly implemented. Maybe daily attendance. Maybe.

History Suggests CPS Can’t Meet Basic Health and Safety Standards Required to Return

Schools routinely lack basic supplies like toilet paper and hand soap in washrooms. There are more than 600 schools in this district, and I’ve set foot in quite a few of them over the last 25 years or so. Unless staff insist otherwise, I usually go to the student restroom to see the conditions. Most are abysmal at least sometimes, including at schools my own daughter has attended. 

Here are my instant questions upon reading the commitments the district has already made public:

What happens when a “limited set” of masks for students and staff at a school run out? Because they will. Based on prior experience, I expect that teachers, and parents who can afford to, will be paying for them out of their own money. Or making them. This isn’t just about money, although it is about money. There will be schools in poor neighborhoods with sufficient social capital to start mask-making brigades and keep supplies sufficient. And there will be schools where the needs are so great and social capital is stretched so thin that the school community will not be able to supply enough masks to meet demand. Then, who will step in?

Who got the hand sanitizer contract? What was the bidding process? I can look these things up. What it might still not tell me is who knew who to let the sanitizer company know the district had put out a request for bids. This is Chicago, and the Chicago Way is very persistent. Who’s making money out of this?  Who sent them? Those are always relevant questions.

How is CPS going to enforce these “stringent cleaning and disinfection protocols?” No one trusts the current janitorial services to meet stringent standards for cleanliness and disinfection. In fact, the janitorial services now under contract have performed ordinary cleaning so badly that the district has already promised to cut ties with them in a year.

When I heard CPS was cutting short its janitorial contracts, my first thought was, “They’re keeping them for one more year while they pursue alternatives because we’re going to be remote for a lot of next school year.” But if CPS intends to re-open schools, even partially, even with fewer kids, with these janitorial services still in place, only the parents most desperate for face-to-face learning will send their kids back. This is flat-out wrong.

Are temperature checks really worth the money? Working parents already give kids Tylenol and send them to school when they can’t afford to take time off work. For cash-strapped districts like CPS, temperature checks might be a poor investment. No-touch thermometers are expensive and in high demand. Their readings may not be accurate if taken by untrained staff. Moreover,  temperature checks may not be as valuable as other infection control measures, like regular handwashing.

Speaking as a single parent with asthma and high blood pressure who is fortunate enough to work from home heavy-part time, I’m coming into this discussion expecting my daughter to stay out of her school building until we have effective treatment and/or a vaccine. I’d much rather put my energy into figuring out how to educate her well in an outside-the-box manner next fall than put myself at risk for a disease that might kill me.

There’s an outside chance our particular school might come up with some creative solutions I can’t yet imagine. If they do, I’m here for it. My daughter will be 11 next school year, so still relatively low risk to get or spread COVID-19, and she needs to be around other kids. So finding a way to make that happen next school year is a high priority. But not at the expense of my health or even my life.

Meanwhile, other families will have very different factors influencing their decision-making, and they will weight those factors differently. I respect that. This is a situation where I think real say from families about their individual health situations and their capacity to educate their children remotely matters enormously. I also trust families to have excellent ideas for how schools and districts could improve remote learning for kids far more than the built-while-flying experience we all just survived. I’d love to hear more from families—and students—about how to improve on that first try, especially if we can gather outdoors in groups of 10 or fewer next fall until the weather gets cold.

CPS, We Need You To Build Trust with Us

Yet, once again, based on experience, I have little faith that CPS will develop effective strategies to get this kind of feedback from parents and use it to guide decisions at the school and district levels. They need to get in real close with a whole lot of parents, especially parents of students with IEPs, to understand families’ needs at a deeper level. If the district wants me to trust them enough to put my child back in their buildings next fall, it will take more than surveys and focus groups to persuade me they’ve got this. But they can start by giving clear and public answers to the questions I’m asking.

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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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