School’s back in session in Chicago, and the stakes could not be higher

Safety concerns have ratcheted up in the last week, but CPS and teachers can and must make this reopening work.

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Meghan Hayes, a teacher from John Hay Community Academy, teaches remotely outside the home of School Board President Miguel del Valle to protest the reopening of schools to in-person learning.

Meghan Hayes, a teacher from John Hay Community Academy, teaches remotely outside the home of School Board President Miguel del Valle to protest the reopening of schools to in-person learning.

Pat Nabong | Sun-Times

The stakes for public health and safety already were high before the Chicago Public Schools reopened for in-person teaching. But in the past five days, those stakes ratcheted up several notches.

On Monday, thousands of hopeful yet anxious parents brought their children back to school, despite the pandemic, because remote learning simply wasn’t working for them. 

Parents like Tamara Walker, who said that her son’s school, Suder Montessori Magnet on the Near West Side, was “extremely prepared.”

“That being said,” Walker added, “we’re still nervous. He has a mask and backup mask. So we’re obviously praying for the best.”

Then on Wednesday, troubling news emerged: Two teachers at McCutcheon Elementary tested positive for the coronavirus and the cases “could potentially be related,” CPS officials acknowledged. Eight staff members who had been in contact with the teachers have had to quarantine.

Meanwhile, there has been the very public spectacle of teachers refusing to return to school and, instead, setting up remote classrooms outside the home of School Board President Miguel del Valle to protest the reopening plan.

That’s the sort of week it’s been: Nervous parents praying for the best, two cases of coronavirus at a school and more public spectacle courtesy of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Be professional

Now more than ever, CPS and CTU must come together to make this reopening safe and successful. Whatever their grievances, the two sides have just got to be professionals, do their jobs and get over it, as Stacy Moore, the executive director of the non-profit Educators 4 Excellence, urged in a Sun-Times op-ed this week.

The two sides may not adore each other — they may be plotting future political campaigns — but they’ve got to work together if children and teachers are to have a successful return to the classroom.

None of this is easy or simple, as public health experts have stressed. And we hope to see federal help soon. President-elect Joe Biden on Thursday said he hopes to get Congress to approve $100 billion in funds to help schools pay for rapid coronavirus testing, personal protective equipment, ventilation upgrades and the like.

Until that help comes, and even after, it’s up to the professionals to put aside their differences and do the jobs they signed up for: Providing children a good and safe education.

In-school transmission

It would be reckless to brush aside concerns about the two coronavirus cases that have popped up at McCutcheon. But there is also no need, as some would have it, to now shut down every reopened school.

Isolated cases of COVID-19 at reopened schools were always inevitable, as Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady warned months ago. But a small number of isolated cases that were not provably transmitted within a school is no reason for widespread alarm. Research has shown that when proper safety protocols are followed at a school, the virus can be contained. Large outbreaks are not inevitable.

For proof of that, look no further than the schools of the Archdiocese of Chicago, suburban districts and big cities like New York. All have reported isolated cases and even small clusters within schools, but they have safely managed to remain open.

Teachers want to teach

No one can blame parents and teachers for feeling more anxious now about returning to the classroom. Nobody wants to be exposed to a potentially deadly virus. And it is here where CPS can make or break public confidence.

It begins with being forthright. CPS must inform parents and school staff right away what they learn, through contact tracing, about how the McCutcheon teachers contracted the virus.

If there was a breach of safety protocols, CPS had better explain what went wrong, how it will be fixed and then go the extra mile to address lingering concerns.

Transparency can go a long way toward building trust.

The teachers union, for its part, has got to be a partner, not an adversary. That starts with dialing back the anti-CPS rhetoric. Remember, a majority of teachers — 71% — have returned to their schools, and not just because they’re afraid of losing pay or being fired.

Teachers want to teach.

Chicago can do this: Get kids back in the classroom, where learning works best, safely.

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