Most public schools in Chicago were closed for a third day on Friday, with no resolution in sight to a standoff between the teachers’ union in the nation’s third-largest school district and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration.
Schools across the country are struggling to figure out how to get back to class in the face of the highly contagious Omicron variant. While most have continued with in-person classes, some have moved to remote instruction. Chicago is an example of a city where the situation has been more tense than it was in other places. Schools were reopened on Monday for hundreds of thousands of kids, but they were stopped abruptly Wednesday by teachers who demanded more testing and virus precautions while city officials said that the school year should go ahead in person.
Families were racing to find child care but also grappling with the unknowns of what might happen. Would school go back in session — in person or remote — soon? What if this continued into next week? How could a sore fight between the Chicago Teachers Union officials and city officials be resolved?
Interviews with Chicago families of schoolchildren revealed that there was a wide range in opinions about what should happen next. Parents worried about the rapid spread of the virus called for a temporary shift in learning to remote. Others called for an immediate return of classrooms, arguing that the pandemic has left children isolated. Others were somewhere in the middle, uncertain about the best steps but angry at the chaos in Chicago.
Five families shared their stories and offered their thoughts on the standoff.
The possibility of more online school for John Christie’s fourth-grade son, Ian, is enough to bring Mr. Christie to tears.
According to Mr. Christie, his son, who was diagnosed with autism, thrived on the in-person instruction that was provided during the fall. In earlier periods of the pandemic, however, when school was available online, Mr. Christie said that the circumstances were dire for his child and the family. They tried to assist him by sending him to Pullman, a Pullman neighborhood on South Side.
“That was probably one of the most stressful and excruciating things that we attempted to do with him,” Mr. Christie said. “And so it’s just this building frustration right now of ‘What are our options?’”
When classes were canceled on Wednesday, Mr. Christie’s wife, Lori, decided to take off from work to be with their son. They worry about the future.
“Schools are not health departments, they’re not epidemiologists,” Mr. Christie said. “But it’s just really, really frustrating.”
Alejandra Martinez believes that moving back to remote school is the best way to keep her family safe.
After her youngest son, a preschooler, was exposed, the entire family contracted the virus. She said she worried that a return to school might bring new cases of the virus; she was especially concerned about another son, a first grader with asthma, as well as the boys’ grandmother, who lives next door.
Ms. Martinez, who lives at home with her kids, stated that she had the time and resources to help them with their studies if they wanted to go online.
She said that the downside is that her sons are often upset about missing their teachers and classmates in online school. She said that she prefers that to the possibility that a loved would become seriously ill.
Ms. Martinez stated, Teachers deserve the support from families.
“They’re running multiple jobs that are not their job title,” Ms. Martinez said. “Being nurses, being counselors, being a therapist. Being a second parent to these kids, and sometimes their only parent.”
Some parents, such as Teffany Akins’, experienced mixed emotions.
Ms. Akins, who has two daughters — one in kindergarten and another in fourth grade — said she believed that if children were vaccinated and wore masks, they should be able to safely stay in school. Ending in-person school, she said, will not stop the virus’s spread.
“I don’t believe that kids going remote is going to give them the reduction in cases that they’re thinking it will give,” she said.
When schools were online earlier in the pandemic, Ms. Akins and her husband struggled to find enough space in their home in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood to work. It was difficult for their daughters to pay attention in virtual school. It was difficult, Ms. Akins explained, to watch her children fall behind academically as well as socially.
Ms. Akins stated she supports teachers but also said she was talking to other parents about their fears and concerns about moving away.
“I’m a union worker myself,” Ms. Akins said. “But at the same time, I really wish it was a more organized approach to going remote than just deciding that we’re not going to show up for school.”
All the uncertainty was upending Laura Lynch’s household. She said she could handle a shift to remote education for her fourth-grade boy if needed, but she wished that the school system had handled matters differently.
“They had plenty of time to lay down the sandbags to prepare for higher numbers,” she said of the surge in cases across Chicago. “So I’m a little bit disappointed that they didn’t have a plan in place if there was a spike.”
Ms. Lynch stated that she would prefer a temporary shift to remote learning for several more weeks until the cases diminish. She was concerned about the impact on her son.
“He would pace like a tiger in the zoo in too small of a cage,” she said of earlier periods of online learning.
However, she stated that she and her family are in a better position than many families. Because she is in nursing school, her schedule is flexible. Her husband is a Garfield Park resident. Ms. Lynch said that such a change would add to their burden. They could manage.
Whatever solution comes should come quickly — and be short term, said Aaron Wise, who worries that his two high school children are missing out on important parts of their adolescence.
Another stint of online learning — rather than in-person classes — would be trying, but if it was brief and solved the problem, he said, it would be better than just ignoring the problem.
“It seems like a small price to pay to get everybody healthy, or a way larger majority of people healthy,” he said.
Mr. Wise’s children, said Mr. Wise, who lives near Avondale, is able to take care of himself if school switched to virtual learning. His only worry is the social interaction they are missing out on — and some of the milestones his elder child, a senior, would not get.
“They’re not seeing their friends, which is why you want to be in school when you’re a kid,” he said. “They’re way less active. Their diets are worse. You feel like a shut-in.”
He stated that testing was not completed before he attempted to return to school. He explained that his younger son took a test provided for students before realizing that he didn’t know how to send it. The majority of the approximately 150,000 mail-in P.C.R. Many of the 150,000 mail-in P.C.R.s that were sent to Chicago students never got returned. Many of the 40,000 or more tests that were sent in were returned with invalid results.
Mr. Wise stated that he felt that the testing program was a waste of money, time and resources. However, the teachers were reasonable enough to demand a stronger program for safety. He couldn’t understand the reason officials didn’t agree to that.
“I feel like there’s a lot of political stuff going on,” he said. “It’s hard, the situation is difficult. But it really shouldn’t be That difficult.”
Source: NY Times