Disappointment, relief, uncertainty: CPS students, teachers and parents have mixed reactions to online school this fall

All CPS schools will be online at least from Sept. 8 to Nov. 6.

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Dwayne Reed, 29, a Chicago Public Schools teacher, poses for a portrait in the Near West Side Wednesday afternoon August 5, 2020 after CPS announced that students will be attending classes remotely in the fall to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Reed said he is “relieved, thankful, happy that I’m not forced to choose between my life and my livelihood. [I’m] excited to figure out the ways to best serve our scholars.” | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Dwayne Reed, 29, a Chicago Public Schools teacher, poses for a portrait in the Near West Side after CPS announced that students will be attending classes remotely in the fall to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Nesean Smith’s fall of his senior year at Morgan Park High School was supposed to be full of memories he’s been looking forward to since he was a freshman: football season, homecoming and enjoying the last year of high school with his friends.

Instead, Smith, 16, of the South Side will log onto school virtually Sept. 8, since Chicago Public Schools announced the entire first quarter will be completely online.

“I didn’t really want it to happen, but I knew it would happen,” Smith said. “Most people prefer learning in-person over Zoom calls.”

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CPS and Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Wednesday schools will remain closed beginning Sept. 8 through at least the end of the first quarter, Nov. 6. Many teachers and parents are relieved about the decision in light of worsening COVID-19 conditions.

But with just over a month before school starts, teachers are scrambling to create robust online curriculums, parents are navigating full-time jobs with kids at home and students are anticipating missing out on everything in-person education has to offer.

‘My education matters’

Peyton Williams, a rising senior at South Shore International College Preparatory High School, said after how much she struggled to do online school in the spring, she knows she’ll be missing out academically this fall.

“My education matters,” said Williams, 16, of Beverly. “While I was doing virtual learning, it felt as if it didn’t mean anything. ... I honestly felt as if I wasn’t learning.”

Ernest Smith, Nesean Smith’s father, has three other children who will be attending CPS this fall: a sophomore at Kenwood Academy High School, an eighth grader at Dixon Elementary School and a first grader at Pirie Fine Arts and Academic Center.

Though he understands the district’s health concerns, Smith said CPS’ decision brought “shock” and “disappointment” when he thinks about how it’ll affect his children’s education.

“We’re going to do our part as parents to fill in blanks as best as can,” said Smith, 38, of the South Side. “But students need interactions. That’s how they grow and properly develop.”

Margaret Heller’s son Ira will be in first grade at Hayt Elementary School in Edgewater. Heller was already planning on opting for all remote classes for her six-year-old, who is participating in a clinical trial in Columbus, Ohio, for a congenital condition.

Still, Heller said she’s worried the socialization Ira is missing out on.

Left to Right: Julian Ira Heller, 3 and 6 respectively, pose for a photo in the spring. Ira Heller will be in first grade at Hayt Elementary School in Edgewater.

Ira Heller (right), 6, will be in first grade at Hayt Elementary School in Edgewater. He is seen here with brother Julian, 3.

Provided/Margaret Heller

“It’s not even school, so much, that’s important to me — it’s that he has a lifelong love of learning,” said Heller, 36, of Edgewater. “He’s missing out on a lot of other aspects of being in school.”

Working full-time, Heller plans to take a couple vacation days to help get Ira settled with online school, at which point she hopes she can take a backseat and still get her work done.

Teachers relieved

Before CPS decided to go completely virtual, many educators felt their lives hung in the balance, as returning to school meant risking exposure to the virus.

Dwayne Reed, a fourth and fifth grade English and Language Arts teacher at a CPS school on the South Side, said felt like he was facing a “death sentence” if he had to return to the classroom.

“It’s a relief to me as an educator because I’m not being forced any longer to choose between my life and my livelihood,” said Reed, 29, of the West Side. “I no longer have to choose between what I’ve been doing for last few years — loving the children and families of CPS — and keeping myself alive.”

Returning to the classroom this fall could put Hilario Dominguez’s health at risk. The 27-year-old special education teacher at Peter Cooper Dual Language Academy on the Lower West Side is immunocompromised because he has asthma.

Dominguez, of Pilsen, said it’s “about time” CPS made its decision.

“We could have and should have been spending more time working on a robust learning plan instead of fighting for our lives,” said Dominguez, 27, of Pilsen. “I’d rather not take victory lap. There’s much more work to do.”

Online learning comes with unique challenges, especially for students are on individualized education program (IEP) or 504 plans, which provide learning accommodations to students, said Dominguez. Students who struggle to stay on-task in the classroom have an even harder time doing so virtually, Dominguez said.

Despite the challenges, many teachers recognize school health and safety as a No. 1 priority.

“I know that remote learning is not as good for [students] academically or socially-emotionally,” said Sarah Howland, 31, of Logan Square, who’s a second grade teacher at Bateman Elementary School. “But I feel like we haven’t as a city and a state and a country prioritized what we would need to do to go back into schools safely.”

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