Today, Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union are in what parents hope are the final hours of negotiations before an agreement that will give families greater certainty about how school will operate in February and beyond. Like everyone who’s not in the room, I have no idea what that could look like or even if negotiations will produce an agreement before Wednesday morning.
While we all wait to see what happens, I’d like to tell you stories about some CPS parents and families who aren’t in the room where it’s happening. Because different families have different levels of comfort with publicly sharing their stories, I have used a first name, no name and a full name.
The Family for Whom None of this Matters
A couple of weeks ago, I was out on my front stoop on a cold Saturday night when one of my next-door neighbors came by. We had a chat standing about 15 feet apart, wearing masks. We hadn’t seen each other for weeks.
Jason is a trucker. His son is 5 and is autistic. His wife is fighting stage 4 cancer. They live in a three-flat with extended family. The family is quarantining by floor so Jason’s wife will have the least exposure possible to Covid. Jason’s mom has come in from the suburbs to join their floor and help them out. But it’s still a lot fewer people than usual.
“It was hard over the holidays,” Jason told me. “Thanksgiving, Christmas—it’s not the same without everyone gathered around the table.”
School tells Jason his son is “high-functioning,” but remote preschool has been a bust. “He’s regressing,” Jason said. “He’s non-verbal.” Much as the family would like their son to be back in school, they can’t risk it while his mother is in treatment and her immune system is weakened. “We’ll just have to wait,” Jason told me.
The Mother Who Studies the Numbers
After the district released the latest version of its reopening plan, a friend of mine, a mom on the north side, took it upon herself to understand Chicago’s Covid-19 dashboard at a whole new level. “I know more about the City of Chicago Covid dashboard than I ever thought I would,” she said, with a note of rueful pride.
“CPS says on their web site that they’re committed to safety,” she said. When she read the reopening health and safety protocols, she noted the sentence, “Aligned with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) supports the phased reopening of city schools.”So, she took a look at the CDC’s guidance. Here’s their chart, which is also available online:
There are additional “secondary indicators,” but she chose to focus on the first two core indicators to see where Chicago stood with them. What she found shocked her. With the help of a friend, she put this graph together.
“Even though it has gone down over the last few weeks, we’re still well above the point where it goes from highest risk to just higher risk,” she said. The second core indicator–test positivity rate–has fallen from the “higher risk” category to the “moderate risk” category, which feels risky to her.
Which numbers to use and how to use metrics has been the subject of continuing debate. But to this mom, invoking the CDC guidance when Chicago is not even close to green on two core metrics smells fishy.
What she’d like to tell the district leaders in the room is this: “When I dive into the numbers and see how not truthful you are, then I’m worried that people are going to die, and you don’t care.”
The Mom of Children Who “Need to Go Back”
Yvette Torres is a Southwest Side mom with three children in CPS: a high schooler and two first-graders. All have struggled with remote learning. But her heart breaks for her young son. “I should not have to have my first-grader crying all the time that he doesn’t want to log in to computer school. He used to love school.”
“I understand everyone’s concerns,” she was quick to add. “Some people need to keep their children home. And there are children who need to go back. They’re failing.” For other examples, Torres also pointed to the children who are talking to teachers over Zoom about going hungry and the harrowing story reported last fall of a 7-year-old who was abused on camera during a break from remote learning.
As kindergartners, her younger children lost time during the fall due to the strike, then more in the spring when the pandemic arrived. “They missed basically half of kindergarten,” she said. Her daughter has a speech delay and her son recently received an individualized education plan (IEP) as well. Now they–and their peers–have spent more than half of first grade trying to learn from home. “We’re going to have to catch them back up to the routines of schools, which the littles didn’t even get the foundation for.”
Like so many parents, Torres is trying to help her littles learn online while working her full-time job. “If I were going to be able to support my children academically, I would have to sit next to them at the computer all day, and I can’t do that because I have to work.” Her children’s school would like to help, but “there’s really nothing they can do.” Both children complain frequently of stomachaches–a common sign of childhood anxiety–and her daughter can’t sit still for long.
“I’ve been having panic attacks because it was just too much. My kids aren’t getting what they need. It’s affecting them mentally, emotionally, and it could lead to a lot of long-term problems.”