Black boy w/Covid mask

The School Reopening Push Will Cost Lives Without Helping Children

Next week, my 5-year-old son is supposed to return to the classroom. Like many parents, I am terrified. As of Monday, January 4, we have had nearly 17,000 deaths due to Covid-19 in Illinois. Despite Chicago’s citywide positivity rate ticking up to nearly 10%, Mayor Lightfoot is catering to the disproportionately loud voices of some white parents who are clamoring for schools to reopen. 

Most importantly, while fewer children than adults suffer severe cases of Covid-19, a small number of children exposed to the virus have developed a life-threatening illness known as Multi-system Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C). MIS-C can lead to inflammation of the kidneys, heart, brain, and lungs. Debate continues over  whether Chicago Public Schools has done enough to improve air filtration in schools. Personally, I don’t trust a system to keep us safe when some school building’s windows don’t open and the newly-purchased air purifiers only cover 500 square feet.

As a parent, I cannot fathom sending my child into the building.

As a teacher, I can’t see any instructional benefit to my students, either. Maintaining CDC guidelines means that if my students and I return to the classroom, nothing will change, other than endangering our lives. I will be at a desk with my laptop and earbuds. Several students may be in the room, also with their laptops and earbuds, while the rest are watching me from their homes. From a pedagogical standpoint, this benefits no one. We, as teachers, are constantly working on best practices for teaching during a pandemic. Returning to buildings will literally change nothing. It will not benefit student learning.

Someone Will Die–Can We Live with That?

This misguided push will kill kids and school workers, period. This is not hyperbole. We have watched this tragedy play out repeatedly across the country, most recently with Zelene Blancas, a dedicated educator in Texas who lost her life to the pandemic. Ms. Blancas contracted Covid-19 from her workplace. Her death is an unspeakable tragedy that could have been avoided.

Whether you are a parent, educator, or just someone who cares about children, please consider the following points:

1. Having schools reopen during the height of a pandemic in communities with disproportionately inequitable access to health care is unconscionable. The Covid 19 Racial Data Tracker highlights how this disease is disproportionately killing Black and Latinx people. While the pandemic does not discriminate, we have a crippling health care system which does not provide equitable treatment. Chicago Public Schools is predominantly composed of students of color. I have heard from students’ mouths how their family members have had Covid but were afraid to go to the hospital due to their undocumented status. We need an antiracist health care strategy. In the meantime, going back now, especially with a vaccine on the horizon, does not make sense.

2. Aramark has repeatedly shown their ineptitude and cannot be trusted to maintain CDC guidelines. Ever since Rahm Emanuel privatized the district custodial staff with Aramark, students, teachers, and parents have been raising the alarm. I witnessed it firsthand. Schools became filthy. For service hours, many of my own students offered to help clean my classroom in years past. One winter break, my coworkers’ classroom was not touched. Garbage bags of pizza boxes and trash had sat for weeks, causing a stench and leading to rodent infestation. Cleanliness audits were cheated. Aramark needs to go now, and I do not trust them to maintain clean schools, let alone maintain CDC guidelines. 

3. Remote learning is not a lost cause. While remote instruction has its challenges, teachers have been working tirelessly to make it as successful as possible. Scholars have asserted how student choice helps kids learn by choosing activities that they want to do, within rigorous academic content that aligns to given standards and objectives. In remote teaching, I and many other teachers have been using tools like Google Jamboard to create choice “menus” where students select their own methods of assessments. In my own student survey, kids repeatedly responded that they prefer to choose how to demonstrate their  learning. The evidence from their assessments shows that it is working! Students are not just enjoying class, but they are also learning immensely. 

In-Person School in an Unchecked Pandemic Makes No Sense

While remote teaching has its challenges, teachers are being forced to adapt their pedagogy, and students are succeeding. The notion that “teachers are lazy,” a  comment I frequently see online, is outright false. We have been working harder than ever to help our students succeed during this unprecedented time.

Students and teachers are not selfish for not wanting to die. This should not have to be stated, but here we are. We teachers are allegedly “selfish frauds.” This is where we are as a country. Wanting to live, and wanting their students and their families to live, makes a teacher self-centered. It is hard to conceive that this has become a valid talking point, but here we are. The truth is that, unlike many other countries, we are a failed state, unprepared to deal with a deadly pandemic.  One’s anger should be focused at the U.S. government’s inept response, not on teachers and families for wanting to live. 

Teaching and learning are my passions. But in-person school while the pandemic continues unchecked makes no sense. As a parent, I am terrified for the life of my child. As a teacher, I fear for my own life and the lives of my students and their families. I can’t teach from the grave, nor can kids learn from there.

Photo by Jeremy Alford on Unsplash.

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Mike Friedberg

Mike Friedberg

Mike Friedberg has been a passionate youth advocate since 2007. He began working with students at a community center and has been a Chicago Public Schools teacher since 2012. He currently teaches seventh and eighth-grade science and has previously taught language arts. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two children. His writings can be found at livesleepteach.blogspot.com.

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