On Thursday evening, when the email came from CPS announcing canceled classes on Friday, November 12 for “Vaccination Awareness Day,” my heart sank. I had immediate and visceral memories of the days when my kids (now 10 and 11 years old) were younger, and childcare with full-time work was a constant juggling act.
The logistical challenges of having kids out of school for a day are still real, even with slightly older children and two parents with flexible schedules. My mind immediately turned to the meetings that will need to be rearranged or rescheduled and, frankly, the hours of extra screen time this will mean for my kids. On Vaccination Awareness Day I won’t be scrambling for an appointment, as I already had appointments for my kids, and they’ll be getting their shots in the next couple of days.
But the problems with this day are much bigger than my family’s situation. For many working parents, a last-minute non-attendance day presents a real burden, especially during a month when there were already six non-attendance days for students. (It does appear that the park district will have some drop-off care, and libraries may offer some activities as well.)
I am grateful that CPS is, at least on paper, advocating to get students vaccinated. But this effort feels thin and poorly planned. CPS should have seen this coming and could have done so much more to actually make vaccination available and accessible for their families.
Students need vaccines
I seriously question whether a late-hour school cancelation actually accomplishes the goal of getting as many kids vaccinated as possible. While it means that children are not required to be in school, it does not address the fact that parents, broadly speaking, do not have the same time off. Nor does it broadly address vaccine accessibility, especially in high-needs neighborhoods.
On Friday, the City of Chicago announced that city employees will be given two hours of paid leave on November 12 so they can get their children vaccinated. Two hours. CPS students will be out of school for the entire day, but at least some of their parents will have a couple of hours of paid leave to take them to their appointments—if they can get them.
The email included a list of places where parents can make appointments for their children that included their own pediatricians, pharmacies, or one of the CPS’s four regional vaccination sites.
If CPS truly wanted to make vaccinations a priority, why did they not make every school a walk-in vaccination site (similar to New York City)? Or coordinate a large-scale campaign with Protect Chicago at Home, Chicago’s in-home vaccination program, which is available to all Chicagoans? Importantly, Protect Chicago at Home will not be offering in-home vaccines for 5- to 11-year olds until November 15, which means that is not even an option for families on Vaccination Awareness Day.
Finally, CPS has not addressed the fact that the pediatric Pfizer vaccine requires two doses three weeks apart. December 3 would be the date when any student who gets their first dose November 12 should be scheduled to get their second dose. Will students have another day off then? Will city workers get another two hours to manage second-dose appointments? Or will this day turn into another time when parents are left to figure it out on their own?
Teachers need relief
As I turned to Twitter to see what the reaction might be to CPS canceling school with just a week’s notice, the first voices I saw were teachers. The Chicago Teachers Union issued a statement in support of the day off, which includes a paid day off for staff. The day is very clearly a welcome relief for teachers who are a quarter into the school year and teaching through incredibly difficult circumstances.
CPS has been notoriously understaffed, even prior to the pandemic. This year, they’ve been struggling to fill positions from substitute teachers to bus drivers. Burnout is endemic, and teachers unquestionably need more support.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez has denied that Vaccination Awareness Day was in any way about staffing shortages. However, the day before announcing that schools would be closed on November 12, it appears that CPS was anticipating staff shortages, offering financial incentives to substitutes and staff who would work on that date.
Despite the insistence that staffing shortages are not behind the canceled day of school, it is hard to trust that being short-staffed had nothing to do with the decision.
I am glad that teachers will have a 4-day weekend. I hope that it is restorative and that teachers and staff get some much-deserved relief from that extra day.
CPS Passed the Buck
The Emergency Use Authorization for the pediatric Pfizer did not come as a surprise. Those of us watching have known for the better part of a month that early-to-mid-November would be the time when the vaccine would become available for elementary school-aged children.
Likewise, the problem of understaffing and teacher burnout is not new. Most logical humans could have looked at the calendar and realized that a Thursday holiday with a Friday return would involve some difficulty staffing that Friday. CPS has failed to offer adequate support for teachers and staff, resulting in last-minute scrambling to solve staffing shortages across schools.
I hope that Vaccination Awareness Day does what CPS wants it to do. At the end of the day, though, the canceled classes on Friday, November 12 feels like another instance where CPS and the City of Chicago have passed the buck, shifting the burden of planning and forethought from an institutional responsibility to individual parents and families.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to “Vaccination Appreciation Day,” when in fact, CPS is calling November 12 “Vaccination Awareness Day.” We regret the error.
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