night train approaching

We Should Not Reopen Schools Now, But If We Can’t Stop Reopening, Here’s How to Lessen the Damage

Editor’s Note: Parent Jennifer Husbands graciously shared with Chicago Unheard her letter to her daughter’s Local School Council regarding reopening.

I write today to express my deep concern over the reopening plan the district is enforcing.  In some ways it appears the train has left the station – school buildings will be opening despite real and significant concerns from parents and teachers, a supermajority of Alderpeople (including my own) opposing the plan, and increasing positivity rates citywide.  

So much has gone wrong to get us to this point – starting first and foremost with the completely ineffectual and cruelly indifferent response from the federal government to this virus and its multitude of impacts.  If we truly valued human life, particularly the lives of those in communities most negatively affected by this deadly pandemic, we’d be in a different place.  But here we are.

Real Problems: Lack of Imagination and Insistence on One-Size-Fits-All

Another challenge that has gotten us to this point – and one I think is highly relevant in the current moment – is that we’ve conflated legitimate needs for childcare and supervision with the importance of in-person instruction.  So instead of addressing the problem of students who cannot learn at home due to technical limitations, parent work schedules, need for supplementary supports, etc., we’re treating these needs and the importance of in-person instruction as one and the same.  Our lack of imagination regarding how to segment the various problems our communities and students are facing and proposing a one-size fits all solution has been incredibly disappointing to witness. (For example, here is an approach I learned about in July and shared widely.)

There is much more I could say about how the CPS plan does not align to CDC recommendations as teachers have documented in school after school that mitigation strategies have not been equitably distributed throughout the district amidst our increasing positivity rate which currently sits over 10% citywide.  Or how the stated goals around equity and bringing back the students furthest from opportunity are not borne out by the data, which show that a much larger percentage of eligible white students (67.5%) are planning to return to in-person learning as compared to Black (33.9%) and Latino (31%) students.  We also know that schools reported coronavirus cases before students and teachers even returned to the buildings.  If we couldn’t keep the virus out then, I’m not sure what makes us think we can keep it out now.

What Will Happen to My Daughter’s At-Home Learning When Schools Reopen?

So while I’m not immediately fearful of my child’s safety because we can keep her home, I’m extremely worried about the continuity of her educational experience.  Her core teacher, as well as her specials teachers, have all done an incredible job adapting the craft of their teaching to the remote environment – an enormous challenge under the best of circumstances.  It has taken our child time to adapt, but we have found a workable routine where she is engaged in learning, interacting with her peers, receiving access to enriching specials classes, and becoming increasingly proficient in her use of technology.  She is not burdened by wearing a mask or trying to keep distanced from her peers, she is not facing limitations around getting water and going to the bathroom, and she is not in increased danger when it is time for her to eat lunch.  Her teacher is not teaching through a mask, nor is she trying to teach students in front of her while simultaneously teaching students who are remote (an impossible job under the best of circumstances).  Her teacher has worked incredibly hard to set routines and create a sense of community among the students in her class, and together we are making it work.

If her core teacher is forced to return to the building in early February, what will that mean?  Do schools truly have sufficient bandwidth (or even outlets) for teachers to teach their remote students and their in-person students, who I understand will also be participating through their laptops?  Will students be able to even hear their teacher as she teaches through a mask and a face shield, teaching both remote and socially-distanced in-person students simultaneously?  And what will happen to teachers or students if (or more likely, when) a positive case is identified?  How will that further disrupt the disruption already caused by forcing teachers back in the building?

If We Can’t Stop Reopening, Can LSCs Mitigate the Challenges?

I’m an action-oriented person – and beyond being a parent, my degree and my career are focused on improving urban schools so I’m not naïve.  Can we halt the plan for reopening schools in the near term?  Probably not.  But here are some specific stances LSCs might be able to take to mitigate the challenges:

  • Provide a safe space for students who lack supervision at home, devices and/or internet to learn at school so they can participate in the educational process along their peers, staffed by people who are willing to return (and should by all rights receive hazard pay for doing so)
  • Affirm the right of teachers to be able to teach from home, even without approved ADA accommodations, countering the district’s threats of treating them as “AWOL”
  • Encourage families who can keep their students at home or in other supportive settings to do so
  • Advocate for teachers to receive the COVID vaccine as early as possible
  • Put pressure on the district to use a public health metric for safe return that aligns with CDC recommendations and stick with it.

Please note that my comments relate specifically to the return of K-8 students on February 1.  I do not purport to know the challenges faced by parents of our youngest learners or of our students enrolled in cluster special education programs.  I do believe that the lower ratios of staff to students of those two groups might allow for a safer return to in-person learning versus the move to send all K-8 students back without increased technological resources, staffing, and sufficient mitigation equipment and strategies district wide.

And this is not just about my child’s school, our neighborhood, or our zip code.  We are a city of neighborhoods, and a large system of schools.  This is about the safety of our city, our essential workers, our elderly, and most importantly, ALL of our city’s children.

I hope that these concerns are taken seriously.  We are excited for our daughter to return to the school that she loves, with wonderful teachers and staff, a diverse mix of friends, and rich extracurricular opportunities.  We just want it to be at a time that is safe – not just for her but for our children across the city of Chicago.  

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Jennifer Husbands

Jennifer Husbands, Ph.D., is a Chicago Public Schools parent. Professionally, she is deeply involved in education, having served as the founding executive director of Schools That Can Chicago, a network of high-performing, nonselective schools of all kinds--traditional public, charter, faith-based and independent--serving high-poverty students.