Kids belong in school — the real thing — and Chicago can make it work

For proof that Chicago’s public schools can be reopened safely, look no further than the successful example of the city’s Catholic schools.

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A teacher facilitates online classes from an empty classroom at Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior Academy of Social Justice in Englewood.

A teacher facilitates online classes from an empty classroom at Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior Academy of Social Justice in Englewood.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file photo

Educators across the country are warning about a ‘lost year’ for public school education because of the coronavirus pandemic, and let’s consider for a minute what a disaster that would be.

A lost year, with children in Chicago and elsewhere staring at electronic screens for hours — if they engage in school work at all — instead of learning in person with their classmates and teachers.

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A lost year, without the presence of counselors and social workers, who traditionally are among the first caring adults to detect and flag signs of child abuse or other trauma. Calls to local child abuse hotlines have plummeted during the pandemic.

A lost year without the therapeutic services that children with special needs cannot get online.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and it should not.

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Chicago Public Schools is doing its best to make that case, working to ease the worries of parents and teachers in advance of resuming in-person instruction for some children — preschoolers and special-needs kids — later this month.

CPS has devised a safety plan, based on the best practices set out by public health experts, to minimize exposure to the virus or its spread. Just this week, CPS released new data showing that the air quality and ventilation in 91% of CPS classrooms meet or exceed the standards for safe for in-person learning.

But what’s CPS’ best argument for the case that its schools can be reopened safely, even at a time when the coronavirus is surging again?

The fact that other school systems already are pulling it off. Even right here in town.

The Archdiocese of Chicago: Catholic schools in the city of Chicago reopened in September, with 34,000 students and over 2,000 teachers returning for in-person learning. Just 18% of parents opted to continue with remote learning — an option that CPS parents, and teachers with underlying health conditions, should continue to have when the public schools reopen.

The archdiocese had spent weeks developing mitigation measures with public health and infectious disease experts, and those measures appear to be working. There has been no sign of large-scale, in-school transmission of COVID-19 in any of the city’s 160 parochial schools.

To date, there have been exactly two cases of in-school transmission among teachers. And there have been only 10 reported instances in which two children in the same cohort — children are assigned to small learning groups of 15 to 22 students — have been infected by the coronavirus.

Equally important, contact tracing found that these children did not become infected in school, but at social events outside school, such as a dance class and a soccer game.

“What we’re seeing, because we’re seeing people become fatigued with this [pandemic], is that people are drifting away from following guidelines outside school,” Justin Lombardo, chief of personnel for the archdiocese, told us. “And we’re seeing that reverberate in school.”

The archdiocese also plans to return to exclusively remote learning for two weeks after the Christmas break, creating a kind of buffer against any increased spread of the coronavirus due to holiday socializing.

New York City: Once the nation’s epicenter for the coronavirus, New York City turned a big corner in its recovery last month when it reopened all public schools. Students attend classes in person one to three days a week, to allow for social distancing. About half of the district’s students, however, have opted to continue with fully remote learning.

Early results from mandatory random testing are encouraging: Among 16,348 staff and students in New York’s schools who were tested for the virus by mid-October, only 20 staff and eight students tested positive. Even in neighborhoods that have experienced a resurgence of COVID-19, there has been little sign of it in schools. Of some 3,300 students and employees who were tested for the virus, only four tested positive.

Other countries: Unlike the United States, most foreign countries have taken the view that keeping schools open is essential for both children and the economy, since many parents cannot work from home to supervise remote learning.

The United Kingdom, Germany and France have all opted to keep schools open during new lockdowns triggered by recent new surges of COVID-19. With proper social distancing and aggressive contact tracing, they have found, spread of the disease can be kept to a safe minimum.

In Spain, a new study has found that 87% of students and staff who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this fall did not infect anyone else at school.

At least 191 countries, including neighboring Canada, have reopened their schools, and the sooner Chicago can safely follow suit, the better.

It’s for the sake of children.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that schools need to be bolder than they’re being,” Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, told Education Week this week. “We know this is going to very substantially widen the achievement gap between wealthier/white students and poorer/students of color. The effect is going to be felt for a very long time.”

It’s also for the sake of families.

“Our default position should always be to try, as best as we possibly can, to get children back in school,” as Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s most trusted expert on coronavirus, recently said on WWTW’s Chicago Tonight, “Because of the unintended negative spinoff consequences of what happens to children and families when you keep them out of school, for their mental health, their physical health, their learning, as well as the disruption of the family.”

Kids belong in school. We believe Chicago can make it work.

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