second wave

The ‘Second Surge’ Should Keep CPS Kids At Home, Period!

Today, city leaders announced the ‘second surge’ of coronavirus is upon us. Experts have predicted it was coming for months. Yet, on Friday, the Chicago Public Schools announced it was planning a return to school in November for preK students and students with the most significant need for in person special education. This makes zero sense, not only to me, but to a large number of local elected officials, who have written a joint letter to Mayor Lightfoot and CPS leadership asking what is the plan for testing and contact tracing.

Full disclosure: personally, I no longer have a dog in this fight. My own daughter is taking a break from CPS this year, in large measure because of the appalling lack of foresight and leadership shown by City Hall and the district in dealing with the pandemic.

Back in the spring, we already knew that we were in a public health situation that would not abate for at least months, more likely multiple years. Yet CPS did nothing to look ahead to September. It could barely keep its head above water to handle basics like school meals and laptop distribution. While they did a solid job on the meals, there are still students who lack hardware.

And, there are still thousands of students without reliable Internet access. Last summer, the district and a group of funders announced 100,000 high-need CPS students would be receiving free Internet. But by the start of the school year, less than 20,000 students were connected, and now, I continue to hear about problems with families who should be eligible being told they are not, or families who have been told they were eligible still not receiving services.

Meanwhile, the district made no serious, large-scale effort to provide concerted training in remote learning last spring or over the summer. As usual with professional development, teachers made efforts to learn what they needed on their own. The only new givens I’m aware of were: use Google Meet, not Zoom, and, be on live camera as much as possible–I say this referring to the controversial new guidelines for remote learning currently in use for the 2020-21 school year.

The Summer Was a Wasted Opportunity

Over the summer, CPS and city leaders floated a reopening plan that was met with dismay by both the Chicago Teachers Union and the very Black and Brown parents who have the most to lose when students are not in physical school. Once again, Mayor Lightfoot and CEO Janice Jackson seriously underestimated how deeply distrustful parents are of this district’s ability to handle basic cleaning and sanitation, with good reason.

It has only been two years since the district’s facilities chief was fired over filthy schools. The contracted janitorial services responsible for this mess are still in buildings and will not be replaced until summer 2021. Over the summer, it became increasingly clear that ventilation is key to reducing viral spread in buildings. Yet CPS waited until October to announce it would inspect ventilation systems in all schools and announce its findings publicly. The district appears to have undertaken the inspections as a result of August pressure from CTU, even though the EPA has been talking about it since at least July.

The district’s reluctance to prioritize students for return to school flew in the face of reason when it comes to social distancing, too. There was no way to reduce the numbers of people in person to a safe level without asking some people to stay remote beyond the level of volunteers. Evanston’s elementary District 65 made it clear over the summer who would get priority whenever in-person learning resumes, if in-person school ran out of space. Yes, that’s controversial, but they made the call. CPS did not.

Here’s the point: we’ve all seen this train wreck coming for a long time. And CPS and City Hall, instead of getting ahead of it, have constantly played catch-up. And now, not only are they doing it again, they are potentially putting thousands of lives at risk.

The second surge is upon us. Had the city moved faster back in the spring to prioritize the highest need students and take all necessary precautions for their return, including air purifiers for a limited number of classrooms and extensive use of outdoor space, those kids could have been in school on day 1 in September. And now we’d be talking about moving them back to remote, having built in-person relationships with their teachers and support staff.

But no, instead, we got another mixed-bag rollout of remote learning in September–arguably better this time, but still a huge struggle for young children and for kids with IEPs–and now, just when the district thinks they could have only those groups return, the second surge is upon us.

They Could Have Gotten This Right

I’m extra-upset about this because I have seen a school get it right–the school my daughter now attends. At Chicago Free School, the year began in-person, taking advantage of September’s beautiful weather to give students and their teachers a chance to be together in person and build bonds and routines to carry them through the challenges of remote learning. Now, as the weather gets cold, it’s time for us to make the shift to remote. Not the other way around.

Too late, Mayor Lightfoot. Too late, CEO Jackson. Too late. You blew it. Time’s up. Remote is the way to go until spring. Now maybe you all can focus your energy on how to make distance learning work for the children you have finally decided are your highest priorities. Good luck with that.

Photo credit: Isaac Smith 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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