The clock is ticking to get Chicago kids back in the classroom

The district and teachers’ union have yet to come to an agreement on reopening schools. Meanwhile, a Centers for Disease Control report adds to the growing list of evidence that reopening schools is safe.

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In this Jan. 11, 2021 file photo, pre-kindergarten teacher Sarah McCarthy works with a student at Dawes Elementary in Chicago. The district and the union are trying to reach an agreement before elementary students are set to return on Feb 1.

Pre-kindergarten teacher Sarah McCarthy works with a student at Dawes Elementary in Chicago earlier this month. The district and the union are working to reach an agreement before elementary school students are set to return Feb 1.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia | Sun-Times file

On Thursday, thousands of youngsters who went back to school nearly three weeks ago spent the day at home once again, instead of learning in the classroom with their friends and favorite teachers.

On Monday, another 61,000 elementary students who opted for in-class learning might also still be stuck learning remotely from home — unless Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union can reach agreement on a sensible, safe, school reopening plan in the next few days.

The clock is ticking. Health and safety are at stake, but so are the educational and social well-being of students.

The isolation created by being out of school since the pandemic hit last March is proving to have dire consequences for children’s mental health, as a group of Chicago pediatricians warned Thursday in a Sun-Times op-ed.

“Over the last year, we have witnessed patients becoming increasingly withdrawn and depressed, and we have seen them hospitalized at alarming rates for mental health crises,” the pediatricians wrote. “Their stories vary, but most share a few common elements: falling behind in school, loneliness and isolation.”

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Add this first-hand, expert perspective to a growing mountain of scientific evidence that reopening schools can be done safely — and should be — because the consequences of not doing so are terribly damaging. That evidence includes a new report this week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As this editorial board has said more than once, Chicago’s schools can and should reopen. All it takes is for the adults involved to do the right thing, which is to work together in good faith to reach sensible compromises on vaccinations for teachers, testing for COVID-19 and other matters that remain unresolved.

Easier said than done, yes. But not impossible.

We’ve heard the argument “Why rush it?” Just 37% of CPS families have opted for in-person learning so far, the argument goes, and teachers should be vaccinated before being asked to return en masse to physical classrooms.

But surely those families that want to send their children back deserve that option. And while vaccinating teachers is a priority, it’s likely to take months to get shots to every teacher, given that the elderly and essential workers such as paramedics also are waiting in line.

Meanwhile, an entire school year is on the line. The best way to begin making up for the learning loss and isolation children are undoubtedly experiencing with remote learning is to get classrooms safely open again.

More scientific evidence

In an article on Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, CDC researchers reviewed data and studies from districts that resumed in-person teaching last fall and came to a strong conclusion:

Reopening schools is safe as long as they follow safety protocols such as mask-wearing, social distancing, adequate ventilation and smaller classes to reduce the risk of contracting the virus.

“[T]he type of rapid spread that was frequently observed in congregate living facilities or high-density worksites has not been reported in education settings in schools,” the authors write. “[S]chool-related cases of COVID-19 have been reported, but there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

As a case in point, the CDC researchers cite data from 11 North Carolina school districts that reopened for in-person teaching last fall. Only 32 cases of in-school transmission of the virus were reported during a nine-week period. None of the cases involved student-to-staff transmission.

The Chicago Department of Public Health came to a similar conclusion in an analysis of COVID-19 data from Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic schools that reopened last fall — and remain open now, without experiencing major outbreaks or spread of the coronavirus.

Easing parents’ fears

All the same, most CPS parents remain uncomfortable with sending their children back to school buildings now. Their concerns have to be respected, even as the district continues to push for reopening.

“The last 10 months have been hell in our city,” as Mayor Lori Lightfoot told us. “The pandemic has caused a tremendous amount of anxiety, stress and grief. At this point, most people in our city know someone who’s been directly affected by the virus. Those emotions are real and raw.”

“There’s no easy answers or choices for families,” the mayor added. “That’s why we’re giving people options.”

Families will continue to have the option of remote learning. Some parents, along with the teachers union, have asked CPS to spend more resources to improve remote teaching. There’s room for compromise here, we think. But online learning will always be second-best, and getting students safely back in classrooms must remain the primary goal.

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