Lightfoot: "We look forward to seeing you on Monday."
On Monday, January 11, some Chicago Public Schools (CPS) will welcome 6,000 pre-K and cluster students, CPS CEO Dr. Janice Jackson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced at a press conference last Friday. Although concerns have been raised about student, teacher and staff safety, Lightfoot used this opportunity to dispel what she called “myths.” The first “myth,” according to her, is that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) will not be provided.
She assured the city that it would be provided. Later on, Dr. Jackson noted that the district spent $42 Million on “additional emergency supplies” in addition to investing $70 Million in “building improvements” to ensure the safe return of students. Moreover, Jackson and Lightfoot both emphasized that this was an option, and parents can choose not to send their students back.
However, parents who do wish to send their kids back should have that choice. “To deny parents this option is irresponsible and wrong,” Lightfoot said.
As she went into her rationale on why schools are being reopened amid a deadly pandemic, Lightfoot focused a lot on what she called the “education gap.” In her view, continuing with remote learning as the only option will widen the educational gap and disproportionately impact vulnerable student populations, such as diverse learners and early learners.
“The challenge of trying to get some of our youngest learners to master Zoom or the other platforms to be able to mute and unmute themselves to be able to actually engage as a class on remote learning are profound,” she said.
She even mentioned that as a parent of school-aged child, she wanted to provide that in-person option for other parents. Lightfoot’s daughter, Vivian, attends Francis Xavier Warde Catholic School. According to Lightfoot, CPS’s reopening framework was based on analyses of Catholic schools, which opened in August.
In an interview with Chalkbeat Chicago, Justin Lombardo, a senior officer for the Archdiocese of Chicago, told the outlet that Catholic schools had planned the reopening months in advance and consulted with health experts to see what the safest way to reopen was. He also noted that the scope of their planning might look differently than CPS, which serves a much larger student population.
Since reopening, he mentioned, their COVID cases were reported at 1 percent. Lombardo said they also surveyed parents and 85 percent were in favor of going back. Similarly, CPS surveyed parents, but their numbers were much different.
Jackson said that 77,000 families of students were prepared to go back. However, CPS serves 355,156 students, making this 22 percent of the total student population. So, although Jackson and Lightfoot say that schools are prepared to welcome students, there is still pushback from parents and teachers.
Last Friday, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) held a virtual information session about the reopening plans. During the session, they took comments from teachers, nurses, parents, and students with their thoughts on reopening.
We don’t trust CPS.
Marcie Pedraza, CPS Parent
Kevin Moreno, a high school student, said going back would be a “recipe for disaster.” A COVID survivor, he noted that it is very easy to catch, especially among students who are social creatures. Moreno was not the only one to share that sentiment.
Marcie Pedraza, a parent, said, “We don’t trust CPS.”
Her sentiment was likely referring to the fact that teachers who have been in the buildings report unsafe conditions. Last week, when teachers were slated to go back initially, some taught outside in the cold because they did not feel safe entering the buildings.
Additionally, Jhoanna Maldanado, one of the session’s moderators, shared a chat that one teacher had with a filtration company. Through the chat, the employee said the filter put in place was inadequate. Yet, at the press conference, Lightfoot and Jackson boasted about the high-quality air filters they put into every school building.
Maldanado challenged this and said that one school was asking teachers to sign waivers saying that they were okay to come into the building without an air filter.
Moreover, Lightfoot said CPS conducted a “multistage ventilation and air quality assessment” before determining that it was safe to return to schools. The problem with air filtration was one challenge teachers raised concerns about on the call. Another was the workload.
With the reopening plan, teachers are expected to teach simultaneously. This means that they would teach their students in-class and online at the same time. Maldanado noted that this increased workload was infeasible given all the other new and added responsibilities teachers will have.
How do you eat with a mask on?
Jhoanna Maldanado, CPS Teacher
Then, there were concerns about lunch. “How do you eat with a mask on?” Maldanado asked rhetorically. When this concern was raised at the press conference, Lightfoot came back with a quick quip about the district feeding students since last March, but critics noted that kids were not in schools since March.
There was also concern about students who cannot wear masks. Nikeisha Salas, a nurse, mentioned that if a child can’t wear a mask, there can be an accommodation put into place to say that they don’t have to wear one, which increases the risk for the virus spreading.
Given these copious concerns, parents and teachers on the call said they do not feel safe returning or having kids return. Michol Whitney, a preschool teacher, stated, “I have no intention of returning to the classroom.”
At the press conference, Jackson announced a plan to address what she called “defiance.” For teachers who refuse to go back, they will be considered absent without leave and will not be eligible for pay moving forward. Whitney, who said she’s emailed the district about the return, noted, “The only emails I get back from them are threats to return.”
When asked about what disciplinary actions the district might take against those who refuse to go back, Lightfoot said, “There’s a process to address those issues.”
They did not say much else about disciplinary actions but instead focused a lot on the kids who are being impacted by virtual learning. Jackson brought up the fact that many of the students in CPS are Black and/or Latinx, and they are falling behind in virtual learning.
The CTU also looked the disproportionate impact on Black and/or Latinx students, but they focused on how COVID affects those communities. CTU’s president Jesse Sharkey pointed to the fact that many of the students from working class neighborhoods live in crowded multigenerational homes, have parents who are part of the essential workforce, and generally have lower access to healthcare.
On top of these, the same neighborhoods have 20-25% positivity rates, and death rates are really high. One teacher echoed this sentiment.
“I have students every week who miss class to attend a funeral for a family member,” said Lauren Bianchi, teacher at George Washington High School.
We want students to get
Jesse Sharkey, CTU President
Given this reality, Bianchi supports CTU’s position on not returning to school. Despite this pushback, schools will welcome 6,000 pre-K and cluster students on Monday and 70,000 K-8 students on February 1st, Jackson noted. The district is still in talks about what high school reopening will look like, since students will have to switch classes.
“We want students to get a good education, but we also want students to be safe. We have been asking for a plan which will ensure our safety,” Sharkey noted. ~ℝ
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