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Reopen Schools and Free the Hostages, Our Children

So, the Chicago Teachers Union has decided to defy City Hall. Members are bucking the Chicago Public Schools’ plan to gradually open schools for PreK-8 students and provide parents the choice of their children returning to school or continuing to learn remotely. CTU continues its sad conduct, allowing children and working families to bear the brunt of the pandemic for the convenience of its members.

Even Chicago’s City Hall leaders have yet to create a reopening plan that would meet all the needs involved. Sadly, the CPS plan does not even offer a timeline for reopening high schools. Has City Hall, CPS or the CTU even noticed this past year that at least 82 school-age children were murdered in 2020? 

The national teachers’ unions and many of their local affiliates are excessively scaring the public and their own members. They succeeded at intimidating public officials into the wholesale closure of most traditional public schools for months, and it will likely be longer. All students are being damaged from the trauma of being uprooted and cast adrift, but none so much as low-income students and students who receive special education services.

These children, already facing an uphill struggle, have been abandoned by the adults tasked with their development. Their irreplaceable, critical onsite instruction, socialization and supports have been unceremoniously yanked away. Those supports have been replaced with vastly inferior remote learning that just isn’t cutting it for millions of children. This cruelty persists, despite all of the science pointing to children being less affected by the virus. Meanwhile, experts testify to the enormous damage being done to children by closing schools to in-person instruction.

Clearly, the CTU is not concerned. Why should they be? After all, City Hall has caved twice to them: first in August, then in October.  

The experiences of 2020 abruptly provided sharp focus on what school choice advocates have been warning for years: Teachers’ union leadership doesn’t give a damn about what is best for kids. While every day almost 55 million first responders, health care and other essential workers go to work, often putting themselves in harms’ way with few complaints, teacher unions go to extraordinary lengths to avoid for their members what they are still being paid to do: provide in-person instruction to students who cannot get it anywhere else. 

After a year that saw Chicago teachers get raises and longevity increases despite school campuses closed for months and daily workloads significantly reduced, there is just no justification for denying students and parents the type of roll up the sleeves, can-do work ethic, relentless quest to serve children that many charter schools have adopted.

City Hall and CPS Must Not Back Down Now

Forget the academics for a moment. The social-emotional damage to students sitting at home, sometimes for hours in front of a computer, is reaching PTSD levels, according to many parents. One parent related her fear for her only child, a nine-year-old daughter who spends most of her days alone, forbidden to leave their tiny apartment, struggling with what technology is available, while mom reports to work to keep food on the table. Obviously, poor children like these, who are in much greater need of onsite school supports, are being severely impacted.

There are racial inequity implications as well. Barely one in six Black and Latino parents have jobs that allow them to work remotely. This means the parents, like the mother of that nine-year-old, leave their children home alone, in the care of an older sibling, or they miss work, resulting in further hardship for the family. This is untenable, and it is unforgivable. 

Low-income families are denied access to education during the pandemic and denied quality education choices both before and beyond the current emergency. The quality of their children’s education is dependent on their zip code. For anyone well versed in the civil rights movement, this is, by definition, education redlining.

City Hall and CPS should not back down a third time. They need to stick to their reopening plans and not pay CTU members who refuse to return to work. City Hall should direct CPS to use some of the federal COVID relief money to extend the school year to help students make up for lost instructional time and provide additional support for those students with special needs. CPS should reopen the high schools and provide juniors and seniors paid work-study opportunities in lieu of high school electives that are not even being offered remotely. This will introduce students to the work world while keeping them off the street and out of the clutches of the street gangs.

Parents, of course, should have the option of onsite or remote school for their children, because they best know their kids’ challenges and needs. To make that a reality, schools should organize their teaching staffs to focus on in-person school, the priority, and also have dedicated teachers (likely those with pre-existing conditions) teaching classes remotely. 

It’s Time for a Parent-Led Revolution

Long term, however, for the future of the city and for the sake of those families who lack the economic means it’s time to break the union-dominated, monopolistic public education system by providing all parents with real educational choice.

Communities should make their own demands, whether they are new staffing models, substantive, ongoing training in remote pedagogy, a long overdue move to “mastery learning,” developing new job descriptions, requiring that lost instructional be made up this summer, lengthening the regular school day and school year, or any combination of these. Parents must demand that their school districts pull out all the stops to reshape schools into student-centered places that put the best interests of students first. 

Many charter schools, through long hours, relentless planning, rigorous attention to detail, and a refusal to fail their kids, are succeeding, whether remote or in-person. Traditional schools have bigger budgets, larger central offices and far more administrative staff. And, they clearly have no excuse not to offer the same level of support for children.

Finally, it’s also important that parents demand the freedom to transfer their children to any traditional public, public charter school, or private school that has availability, if a parent feels the educational offering is superior to their traditional local school. This includes the freedom, if schools remain closed, to enroll their child in online learning programs that have been teaching students successfully for decades with well-established remote curricula.

Parents, they are your children, your tax dollars, and your rights. Don’t let the teacher unions hold them hostage any longer or ever take them hostage again.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.

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Paul Vallas

Paul G. Vallas has been a candidate for Chicago mayor and Illinois lieutenant governor. He served as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools from 1995 until 2001, and has also served as school superintendent in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Connecticut. Most recently, he worked as chief administrative officer for Chicago State University.

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