Chicago Public Schools is reliving a bad version of “Groundhog Day,” and 290,000 students are worse off because of it.
Those 290,000 students sat out of school altogether on Wednesday, just two days after returning from break, and will do so again on Thursday because of yet another acrimonious stalemate between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union over remote learning and COVID-19 safety.
Parents and the public have seen this movie before, most recently with the two-week strike in 2019 and then the impasse over COVID safety and re-opening schools last school year.
Eventually, we fear, the acrimony will substantially erode public confidence in Chicago schools. When labor strife becomes routine and adults can’t figure out how to keep schools open, what else can we expect?
Parents may blame one side or the other — or both — but it’s a good bet they’re sick and tired of the battles. And rightly so. When classes are canceled, they’re the ones who have to find child care at 11 p.m. for the next day, or try once again to juggle their own at-home work with remote learning — or no learning at all — for their kids.
“It is immensely troubling,” as Keiana Barrett, the parent of a Curie High School student and a Ray Elementary School fourth-grader, told us. “Of course, the health, wellness and safety of teachers and students is paramount, as is meaningful instruction that happens consistently. Our kids are being put at a disadvantage.”
“Our family is definitely in the frustrated camp,” Matt Cerney, parent of a Pritzker Elementary School student, told us. “We believe schools have done the right things to be safe, and schools are the most essential service we can have in this city. We need kids in schools just like we need grocery stores to be open, the trash picked up and to be able to go to the doctor.”
“I do believe the teachers are seeing things [regarding safety] that I’m not, that things are not in place like the mayor promised,” parent Shannon Goodwin, who also has a child at Pritzker, told us. “Then the mayor says they’re overreacting. The back-and-forth is at the expense of kids.”
And then there was this observation from Karonda Locust, a parent who lives in Garfield Park who wrote a letter to the editor that reads in part, “For me, the worst thing we can do is go back to remote learning, even for a short amount of time, given the harm it has caused our children and in many cases, entire families.”
On Wednesday, CTU doubled down, declaring a target date of Jan. 18 to return to in-class instruction — that is, if cases subside and CPS meets its demands regarding improving COVID testing and other safety measures. Meanwhile, Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady says schools are safe for students now.
Sure, there is room for the district to do a better job providing COVID testing for students and teachers, communicating with parents about school outbreaks and more. Parents and teachers at some schools have legitimate complaints on these issues, which CEO Pedro Martinez had already promised to address.
But now, it seems, the CTU’s default reaction to disagreement with the district is to go right to the nuclear option: Voting not to show up to work, as 73% of union members did late Tuesday night after CPS refused to switch to remote learning districtwide. Instead, CPS has said it wants to make that decision on a school-by-school basis, as needed should outbreaks occur. That option makes sense, and other districts are using the same approach so that as many students as possible can continue to receive in-person instruction.
Unless CPS and CTU can work together as partners, creating a school system that the city can believe in and wholeheartedly support, Chicago has a bleak future indeed.
Several parents gave us another suggestion that makes sense: Create a COVID task force that includes parents and students as well as teachers, CPS officials and health experts. That task force, they suggested, could give advice on how to communicate with families about safety measures and other health and education issues related to the pandemic.
“This [coronavirus] isn’t going away anytime soon,” Goodwin said. “There should be some sort of crisis management team to oversee all things COVID, since CPS and CTU can’t get along.”
That’s the sobering reality that somehow has got to be resolved.
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