Why closing Chicago’s public schools was such a hard decision — even if it seemed necessary
“In some of these communities, if we take away a school — the only public good we still offer them — then we start to leave them to fend for themselves,” an expert said.
At Chicago Public Schools, a district with 270,000 students who are poor and 17,000 homeless, the decision was harder than it looked to close its more than 640 schools for coronavirus mitigation.
Some school districts, states and even countries had already taken that step to deal with the growing number of COVID-19 cases and the anxiety that’s sweeping the world along with it.
Even as medical experts say the risk to children appears low — a Chicago boy at a private school who tested positive this week is in good condition, officials said Thursday — they have stressed that children can spread the coronavirus to vulnerable older relatives or teachers.
Everything you need to know about the novel coronavirus COVID-19, with a focus on its impact on Chicago and Illinois.
And precautionary measures, rather than reactionary ones, have been urged to slow further spread of the virus.
But until Gov. J.B. Pritzker made the call Friday to shut down all public and private schools, taking the decisive step to send kids home had proven difficult for Illinois and Chicago officials — who already lost several days of instruction following a 12-day teachers strike last fall — even as many other districts around the nation had announced closures earlier in the week.
Schools provide more than learning
“In some of these communities, if we take away a school — the only public good we still offer them — then we start to leave them to fend for themselves.”
Families in low-income and under-resourced communities rely on schools for breakfast, lunch and daycare for their children. Some of those families have technology deficits at home. Students with complex needs in special education programs depend on the care of trained professionals. Parents who work hourly or are self-employed might not be able to afford taking time off work to care for their young children.
“In some of these communities, if we take away a school — the only public good we still offer them — then we start to leave them to fend for themselves,” said Victoria Trinder, a University of Illinois at Chicago assistant professor and urban elementary education program coordinator.
Trinder said “it shouldn’t take a pandemic” for policymakers to realize they need to help under-resourced communities and schools. But the fact remains that it’s those exact hardships that mean the decision to shut down Chicago schools would undoubtedly need to be accompanied by serious social service efforts to minimize the burden on underserved communities — help that even in normal circumstances is insufficient.
“If you cannot close schools [because] parents need to work, extend sick days for ALL workers,” Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said in a series of Twitter posts Thursday. “If you cannot close schools [because] children need shelter, then pause evictions, pause mortgage payments.”
Florida’s Miami-Dade County, for example, is home to a similar-sized public school district and on Thursday suspended all evictions until further notice.
CPS, for its part, said after Pritzker’s announcement that it would offer students and families three days’ worth of food at any point during the planned two-week closure, and other city efforts are underway to help ease the burden.
CPS contingency plan
But beyond that, the city’s capacity for quickly putting together the type of relief that would be needed — such as additional food, shelter or sick leave — is unclear, especially given the extra limitations during a public health emergency.
On the Northwest Side, CPS officials played it safe at Vaughn Occupational, a special education high school, shutting it down last week when it became the first CPS school with a confirmed coronavirus case. But families there, three quarters of which live in poverty and all of which have a student with some type of disability, have struggled.
“It’s really, really difficult. The families who are out of school so far are having a hard time,” said Mary Fahey Hughes, a special education advocate with the parent group Raise Your Hand, and herself a CPS mother of a son with autism. Fahey Hughes commended CPS for closing Vaughn, but questioned how legally mandated special education plans for each student would be followed or later made-up in a closure.
The U.S. Dept. of Education released guidance Thursday that schools wouldn’t be required to provide special education services if they were closed to all students.
“It’s getting a little tougher for the families staying at home,” said Cindy Ok, a Vaughn mother and the chair of the Local School Council. “There’s only so many hours of gaming, internet, TV, YouTube videos that you can give these kids. And you can’t take them outside.”
Challenges of online learning
CPS tried to follow new state guidance for districts to develop “e-learning” plans so classes could continue teaching during coronavirus-related closures, but schools chief Janice Jackson said Friday that proved too difficult.
Given Vaughn students’ complex needs, including indispensable assistance from classroom aides, the infrastructure simply doesn’t exist to provide instruction online even at a small school like Vaughn, which serves 212 students. That’s especially true district-wide with CPS’ more than 50,000 special education students, and others who might not have computer or internet access at home.
“They have really high needs that can be met at schools but not at their neighbor’s house,” Fahey Hughes said. “It’s a double whammy for those families because they really count on the time their kids are in school to be able to work and provide for their families. And that’s not just kids with special needs, but it certainly is more challenging to find care for kids with special needs.”
Daycare during the closure will surely become an issue for parents citywide. During last fall’s teachers strike, families could rely on grandparents or send children to the Park District or a daycare. This time around, parents could be reluctant to put older relatives at risk or send kids to other large-group settings.
“I think this a different animal because it’s illness related and you have to be so much more careful about being in crowds,” Fahey Hughes said. “You can’t drop the kids off at the park. It’s very different.”
Lightfoot: ‘Not there yet’
Before Pritzker’s order, CPS had canceled all gatherings of more than 50 people, including athletics and after-school activities. The plan moving forward had been to close a school if someone inside the building has a confirmed case, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at a news conference Thursday.
A few days after the Vaughn closure, Ogden Elementary School stayed open despite a parent testing positive. Health officials said the school wasn’t at risk because the parent never entered the building after contracting the virus.
“His health is important, but his learning is important too. And having to decide that balance is a terrible choice to make.”
“It’s a very big deal to say that we would be shutting down schools,” Lightfoot said, before for the first time cracking the door to widespread closures after days of steadfast denial. “Should there be a reason for us to do that, we will, we won’t hesitate to do that. But we are not there yet.”
Even Friday morning, City health commissioner Allison Arwady reiterated that “it is unlikely” CPS would close.
Abbey Hambright, a mother at National Teachers Academy on the Near South Side, said she is worried about how her family will deal with the disruption. She and her husband are working from home starting next week, and having a 7-year-old with them won’t help.
“His health is important, but his learning is important, too,” Hambright said. “And having to decide that balance is a terrible choice to make.”
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