bartender with mask

No, Mayor Lightfoot, You Can’t Reopen Schools and Bars at the Same Time

Look, Madam Mayor, I get it. We’re all pretty exhausted here in the second week of 2021. I can barely remember my own name, let alone what happened on Monday. I’m making some pretty bad decisions–like not eating all day and then wolfing down my entire daily caloric requirements while standing in front of the refrigerator.

I’m not a doctor, not a scientist, not an infectious disease specialist. But even I know that we can only keep schools open safely when community transmission is low. Yes, there is research showing that when schools practice mitigation strategies they can reduce transmission in school to rates lower than the transmission levels present in the surrounding community. Yes, schools can reflect community transmission rather than increase it.

But you can’t do something that is guaranteed to increase community spread at the same time you reopen the schools. Way back in August, public health experts argued that to reopen schools safely, we’d have to keep other sites of transmission closed, such as bars, restaurants, fitness centers, etc.

Yes, I know. You say, if you reopen the bars and restaurants it will cut back on the wild underground parties happening in downtown hotels. You really want kids in school. Honestly, I think your gut feelings in favor of reopening Chicago Public Schools come down to this: My kid is in Catholic school, and she can go in-person. Thousands of Chicago parents who can’t afford Catholic school want to be in person, too. We have to give them an option. That’s a reasonable paraphrase of what you’ve been saying at press conferences in the last week.

But here’s the thing. The Archdiocese serves about 78,000 students. You are talking about bringing roughly three times that number of students (the systems 355,000 students minus about 100,000 high schoolers) back to school on February 1. Reopening CPS, even with mitigation strategies in place, has to have a much larger effect on overall community transmission than keeping the Archdiocese open has.

To reopen CPS, you have to continue to keep a lid on transmission in other parts of the community. Some health policy experts note that “successfully maintaining in-person schooling depends on the success of measures taken in the wider community, including masking and the closure of certain work and recreational facilities.” What this boils down to is simple: you can’t reopen restaurants at the same time you reopen schools. You have to prioritize.

For weeks, parents, teachers and administrators have been vehemently arguing against your call that it’s low enough now to re-open. Chicago Public Schools just barely got the doors open this week, to less than 2% of the 355,000-plus students in the system. When teachers have protested returning on the grounds it is unsafe, you have chosen to lock them out and dock their pay.

And then, this afternoon, you told Block Club Chicago that restaurants and bars should be reopened for indoor dining “as soon as possible.”

What?

That’s not what you were saying on Monday.

This guy remembers it right:

In fact, public health experts like Harvard’s Joseph Allen are expressing concern that the hybrid in-person model, with kids attending in person just a couple of days a week, might actually be the worst of both worlds. Because hybrid’s in-again-out-again scheduling, plus unpredictable but inevitable quarantines, makes childcare more complicated for adults, children are likely to spend more time with a larger number of adults outside of school, which ramps up community spread.

At a time when a new, more contagious strain of Covid is emerging, when public health experts are saying it’s time to stay out of the grocery store, why on earth are we trying to open bars and schools at the same time?

If schools are the priority you keep telling us they are, Mayor Lightfoot, then you have to hold off on reopening bars and restaurants. Already, McCutcheon Elementary in Uptown has had to have so many staff quarantine, including the principal and the assistant principal, that the building is in “chaos,” the Chicago Teachers Union told Block Club Chicago.

In an effort to remain respected by all folks involved in the reopening conversation, up to now I have assiduously avoided the Chicago Teachers Union hash tag, #MakeItMakeSense, but there’s just nothing else to say about this one.

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino 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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