Reopening Chicago’s schools during the peak of the pandemic is a dangerous folly

There is no question that large numbers of teachers will be put at risk needlessly — and the threat goes beyond teachers. Kids and their families will be at risk as well.

SHARE Reopening Chicago’s schools during the peak of the pandemic is a dangerous folly
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Janice Jackson, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, has announced a plan to reopen buildings for classes beginning in January.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago’s public schools are planning an especially ill-timed and ill-conceived partial reopening this January, right in the midst of what every expert forecasts will be the peak of the most horrendous three-month surge of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and fatalities of the entire pandemic.

The disease is raging out of control throughout Illinois and the nation, but we have yet to feel the full impact of the Thanksgiving surge when millions of Americans ignored good advice and took to the air to join family gatherings.

And this will soon be followed by the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/New Year’s surge.

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Though a vaccine will be available early in the new year, it will not be administered to enough people to make a difference until spring at the earliest.

The planned reopening of Chicago’s schools will be voluntary on the part of parents — the majority of whom are unlikely to participate, according to surveys. They will opt for remote classes for their children during what also will be the peak of Chicago’s ferocious winter.

But the return to in-school classes will be mandatory for teachers, who currently are working remotely. Teachers who fear infection and stay home will be subject to firing.Teachers who have pre-existing health issues, making them highly vulnerable to infection, will be able to apply for an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act or request a leave of absence — unpaid.

Prekindergarten and special-ed students are to report on Jan. 11. Kindergarten through 8th grade students, and possibly some high schools, are to report on Feb. 1. There is a complex and potentially confusing arrangement of alternate days and hours of in-school classes and remote learning based on student age and kind of programming.

The weirdest thing, apart from safety and health issues at many schools, is that teachers will be expected to somehow simultaneously teach both their remote and in-class students, which strikes me as short-changing both groups.

There is no question that large numbers of teachers will be put at risk needlessly — but the threat goes beyond teachers. It goes to the kids and their families as well. This is the hard reality despite the importance of getting all kinds of challenged kids back to classroom learning, especially in Black and Latinx areas.

Okay, the experts say that schools are not super-spreaders, particularly in the first five grades when the youngsters are least likely to be infected. But many children may be asymptomatic, meaning they can nevertheless spread the virus. Consider the example of an asymptomatic youngster who unknowingly infects a classmate, who then goes home and infects Mom or Grandma in a multigenerational household.

What is Janice Jackson, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, thinking? Is this all some a risky, neo-Trumpian stab at bringing back the economy? I hope it isn’t some stupid volley of retaliation against the Chicago Teachers Union for its forever war against the mayor. The CTU has thrown everything including the kitchen sink at Lori Lightfoot, justified or not, in the hope of replacing her with one of their own in the next mayoral election.

But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and the union is clearly right to oppose this plan. It can lead only to more teachers becoming sick and dying or otherwise leaving the profession at a time when there already is a shortage.

Yes, we must get kids back to school as soon as possible. But little can be lost by waiting until the fourth quarter of the school year, in the spring, when Chicago and the nation are expected to be on a downtrend with respect to coronavirus infections and substantial numbers of people will have been vaccinated. A more coherent plan for reopening the schools can then be developed.

Teachers’ lives matter.

Political consultant Don Rose writes a weekly column for the Observer, where this column first was posted.

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