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Parent leaders at first Chicago school shuttered by coronavirus push back against reopening

“What we ask for is to have a conversation with CPS and the school community, where we’re involved together,” said Josh Radinsky, a member of the local school council at Vaughn Occupational High School.

Chicago Department of Public Health workers set up a tent outside Vaughn Occupational High School for conducting health test amid coronavirus concerns March 10. Parent leaders are pushing back against a plan to bring workers back to the school beginning next week.
Chicago Department of Public Health workers set up a tent outside Vaughn Occupational High School for conducting health test amid coronavirus concerns March 10. Parent leaders are pushing back against a plan to bring workers back to the school beginning next week.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Parent leaders at a Northwest Side special education high school are pushing back against district plans to resume in-person classes next month amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The local school council at Vaughn Occupational High School in the Portage Park neighborhood called a special meeting Tuesday to unanimously pass a resolution calling on Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson to delay the scheduled reopening “until it is safe to return to in-person learning as determined by CPS and the Vaughn school community.”

Vaughn saw one of the city’s first coronavirus cases and was the first to close after a staffer tested positive in early March.

Ten months later — as the city continues racking up hundreds of new COVID-19 cases every day — many employees are slated to return to the building Jan. 4, while only 38 of the school’s 235 enrolled students have opted to return for in-person learning Jan. 11, according to Vaughn LSC member Josh Radinsky.

And with a potential spike in holiday transmission looming, not to mention widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines on the horizon, Radinsky said now’s not the time to send teachers and students back inside the small school at 4355 N. Linder Ave.

“Nobody has talked to us about this decision to reopen. No one’s asked the faculty and staff. There’s a lot of anxiety, there’s a lot of stress and there’s no logic to the decision as to why Jan. 11 is safe to bring kids back,” Radinsky said Wednesday.

“We don’t claim to know the public health metrics better than anybody else. What we ask for is to have a conversation with CPS and the school community, where we’re involved together.”

Staffers for pre-kindergarten programs and special education cluster programs like the one at Vaughn have been told by the district to come back next week, followed by K-8 teachers Jan. 25. Hybrid in-person learning for K-8 students is scheduled to resume Feb. 1.

Families were allowed to decide whether or not to send their children back to school, but most teachers have been told to return — a district edict that has drawn severe pushback from the Chicago Teachers Union.

Meanwhile, the local school council at Brentano Math and Science Academy in Logan Square previously adopted a similar resolution urging CPS to halt reopening. So have the councils at Clinton Elementary in West Ridge and at Southside Occupational Academy in West Englewood, according to Block Club Chicago.

But the decision to reopen isn’t up to the councils, which are elected bodies composed of employees, parents and community members. That’s up to the district, where leaders have said the return can be done safely.

“Chicago Public Schools believes every parent has the right to make a decision in the best interest of their child — whether to continue learning at home or to transition in-person in January,” CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said in a statement. “The 77,000 families who chose in-person learning deserve that option to be available to them without judgment.”

Radinsky acknowledged the families who do want to send their kids back to Vaughn next month, but he said the unpredictability of a return — and the possibility of another outbreak — could be problematic for the school’s students, who have cognitive and developmental disabilities.

“We all went to get back to normal,” he said. “It’s just hard to picture like this.”