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Next school year, CPS must do more for students and families left devastated by COVID-19

It’s time for Chicago Public Schools to rebuild trust with the bedrock constituency in the district — working-class families of color.

Preschool teacher Sarah McCarthy works with a student at Dawes Elementary School at 3810 W. 81st Pl. on the Southwest Side, Monday morning, Jan. 11, 2021.
A preschool teacher works with a student at Dawes Elementary on the Southwest Side, Jan. 11, 2021. There is more work to be done before the start of school next year, the Chicago Teachers Union writes.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chicago Teachers Union has been working to highlight the needs of the communities most impacted by this public health crisis. It is self-evident that the pandemic exacerbated the fractured relationship between Chicago Public Schools and the bedrock constituency we depend on — working-class families of color. It is time to rebuild trust.

The pandemic devastated our communities. Pre-pandemic “normal” meant schools already suffered from insufficient numbers of cleaning staff, nurses and counselors. Many Chicago Public Schools families were already struggling with low-wage jobs, inadequate health insurance, and overpriced and overcrowded housing.

In short, “normal” looked like the very conditions that made the pandemic so deadly to our communities in the first place.

Throughout the year, Black and Latinx families have overwhelmingly voted with their feet and chosen not to return their students to school buildings this year. They are not interested in a return to business as usual. Parents, students and educators need district leaders to acknowledge the harm and trauma of the last 16 months, provide concrete actions to protect our most vulnerable, and commit to investing in their school communities going forward.

Shots for students, families

Let’s start with vaccines.

Since vaccines have been available, our union has been advocating for a school-based vaccination program for staff, students and families. We have also been helping families sign up, educating parents and students about the vaccine, volunteering at vaccine events at school sites, and working hard to encourage the safe return of our students in the fall.

It is not possible, however, to accomplish widespread vaccination through individual volunteer efforts alone. We need the government to play its role, and institutions like CPS should set concrete goals.

Think of all the ways a school system with 40,000 employees can move vaccinations among the hundreds of thousands of parents and children who come to us for education. Flyers sent home in backpacks, phone calls and home visits to invite families to school facilities for vaccination events. Lesson plans so students can help their parents understand the importance of getting vaccinated. Counselors, social workers and nurses helping with outreach.

This is urgent. There’s still time to move the needle on student vaccination if CPS starts planning about how to put in place the staff, curriculum, and outreach to these school communities. But instead, we are seeing a return-to-school campaign based on vaccination when there is no plan for getting students vaccinated.

But vaccination is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of recovery.

Addressing trauma from the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a traumatic event, and one that hit the hardest among largely Black and Latinx workers, residents of crowded multi-generational housing, service-sector workers and Chicagoans suffering from poor access to health care to begin with — in short, the families of many of our students. We cannot disregard their experience.

Now consider the impact — not the intent, mind you — but the impact of middle-class white parents demanding a full return to school, work and life as usual, but doing so without any recognition of the trauma and harm felt by Black and Latinx families, who make up nearly 90% of the students in our district.

Our society’s response to the pandemic has revealed much about what matters to those in power.

In the 1950s and early 60s, U.S. society figured out a way to vaccinate our entire population against polio. It involved campaigns and mass immunizations in school. But today we are not seeing anything of the sort in Chicago.

Going forward, we are left to wonder what will happen to the $2 billion of federal assistance to CPS that was supposed to help students and families recover from COVID. The Biden administration has explicitly stated that the funds are to be used to help communities stabilize and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet CPS educators are currently being laid off, and as Mayor Lori Lightfoot declares racism a public health crisis, she is destabilizing and removing educators from school communities in the Black and Latinx neighborhoods that need the most help.

The contradictions must end.

Our district needs to commit to allocating those resources to address the trust gap that accounts for why so many Black and Latinx families still aren’t sending their kids to school. CPS should set up mobile squads of teachers to reach out to these families and reconnect them with schools. We need counselors and social workers who can address the social and emotional needs of a traumatized student body.

Our contract fights in 2019 and around reopening have resulted in hard-fought investments and historic precedent. And this must continue, with federal funds sustained and permanent in order to reach a much higher level of success for our students and school communities.

The education of the next generation of Chicagoans depends on it.

Jesse Sharkey is president of the Chicago Teachers Union, which represents over 25,000 teachers, paraprofessional and school staff working in Chicago Public Schools.

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