As a CPS grandparent, I’m so saddened by how remote learning has been bungled in Chicago

Remote learning in Chicago last spring was a bad joke. Teachers in New York offered twice as much live interactional learning and gave assignments that were twice as challenging,

SHARE As a CPS grandparent, I’m so saddened by how remote learning has been bungled in Chicago

The Chicago Teachers Union threatened to strike if school district administrators pushed forward with a plan to offer “hybrid” learning — a mix of online and in-class instruction — this fall. Now, all classes will be taught remotely.

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Here we are, on the eve of another ”school” year in toxic times in our dystopian universe, so let me share a few of my “educated” thoughts:

Schooling and teaching are in my genes, and in my blood. 

My late mother taught English for 30 years at two Chicago high schools.

One of my daughters is a law school professor in New York City, another runs a network of charter schools in Chicago, a third was on the faculty of a Big Ten University.

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And me? I was an education reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times and NBC 5 before I took up political reporting at ABC 7 and good government advocacy at the Better Government Association and CHANGE Illinois. 

So, yes, education is in my genes, and in my blood.

And that’s why it’s so sad for me to watch the mishandling of schooling and teaching in Chicago since the pandemic shut down the Chicago Public Schools in mid-March.

My wife and I, veterans of alternate schooling scrambles during several long CPS teacher strikes decades ago, were actively involved in last spring’s on-line remote “learning” for two of our CPS grandchildren — one in kindergarten, the other in second grade — while their parents were working, so we experienced the debacle firsthand.

Teachers connected with our grandkids on the internet for less than an hour a day. The rest of the day we helped the kids complete assignments that took an hour to an hour and a half.

So where was the curriculum for the rest of the school day, the other 60%? Did Chicago school officials sanction this truncation? Was the system simply unprepared for remote learning? And what role did the teachers play in this woefully insufficient travesty? 

Remote learning was a bad joke — bad for our kids, who were being robbed of their educations; bad for taxpaying parents, who were underwriting the full salaries and benefits of underperforming teachers and administrators; and bad for the image of a city that could have and should have done so much more, and so much better.

I say this after my wife and I spent 10 days supervising the remote learning of two other grandchildren — also a kindergartener and a second grader — who were finishing their New York public school semesters at home.

It was no Nirvana, but their New York teachers were available for twice as much live interactional learning, and their assignments were twice as challenging over twice as much time each day.

Was the New York City school system better prepared for remote learning? Are New York’s teachers more committed to educating their students? And can the difference be attributed, at least in part, to the attitudes and approaches of their respective teachers’ unions?

I’m certainly not anti-union — my mother was a loyal member of the Chicago Teachers Union and I was a member of newspaper and TV reporters’ unions — and there are no easy answers to these questions. But I would note that only one of the teachers’ unions — Chicago’s — threatened to strike over the prospect of limited in-person school this fall. 

Look, I’m as worried about the health risks of in-person schooling as anyone else, and maybe even more, because my wife and I have two precious grandchildren in the CPS system.

But before threatening a strike vote, did the teachers union sit down with city and CPS officials to discuss ways in-person schooling might work? Split-shifts for half as many students at a time in isolated, self-contained classroom bubbles; everyone wearing masks and practicing social distancing; frequent sanitizing measures and regular COVID-19 testing?

If those truly substantial meetings took place, I never heard about them. If not, shame on all of the parties.

City and CPS officials recently announced that there will be no in-person learning this fall. It will all be remote, which prompted former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas to lament an alleged sell-out to the saber-rattling teachers union.

I’m not going there. The health and safety of students, teachers and other school workers is a legitimate concern. And without additional funding, maybe CPS couldn’t afford the protective measures I have suggested. 

But it’s still hard to accept the inability of public officials and educators — local, state and national — to step up for the children at this critical moment. 

And it’s no surprise that our daughter whose two kids had been enrolled in a CPS school is now developing a safe and carefully controlled alternative curriculum for families that would rather have their kids home schooled in small groups by parents or educators who combine in-person and on-line instruction. 

Our New York daughter is looking at similar options for her kids. 

They simply want what is safest and most educationally sound for kids, teachers and parents — goals their public schools haven’t been able to offer or deliver.

Did it have to come to this, and how will it all shake out? Will the CPS pledge of a more vigorous and accountable remote learning program be realized? I certainly hope so. 

But what I know for sure is that public school officials and teachers should be giving us two things: A much better return on our tax dollars, and the better education they’re well compensated to deliver. 

Andy Shaw chairs the Action Fund board of CHANGE Illinois, a good government advocacy nonprofit. He previously was president & CEO of the Better Government Association and ABC 7’s political reporter.

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