School and union leaders need to come together and find a way to open schools safely
Children and working families are bearing the brunt of this latest crisis
Chicago Public Schools classes are canceled Wednesday as the Chicago Teachers Union voted to refuse in-person work, defying district plans because of post-holidays COVID-19 concerns.
The cancellation came despite a last-minute proposal from city leaders that introduced improved testing and safety measures but wasn’t enough to avoid upending in-person schooling for about 290,000 students at non-charter schools exactly 12 months after another CPS-CTU fight over pandemic safety measures left families in limbo for weeks.
On the Chicago crisis
Chicago parents and students woke up this morning still not knowing if and when their schools will open. Voting by CTU members on whether or not to return to the classroom lasted well into the night, although the outcome was pretty much assured. The CTU announced late last night that 73% of members who voted favored pausing in-person instruction and returning to remote instruction.
But Mayor Lori Lightfoot said reverting to systemwide online schooling was unacceptable and unnecessary, and her administration decided to call off class altogether — keeping the buildings open for emergency child care — rather than return to virtual instruction.
Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady says she's “extremely comfortable with children learning in school,” and argued children’s experience of COVID is similar to the annual flu season. Child hospitalizations are rare, she added. The city is currently averaging seven COVID hospitalizations a day for children from newborns to age 17.
But while Dr. Arwady is correct when speaking generally, there are schools and classrooms that don’t measure up to agreed-upon safety standards.
Hopeful words from CTU Pres. Jesse Sharkey
“We do want to get a negotiated agreement about safety protocols in this period of increased transmission. There is a plan firmly on the books to meet with them about 1:30 (p.m.) today. We are going to talk to them as much as we need to, around the clock when necessary.” — Tribune
All I want to say right now, so as not to pour gasoline on the raging fire, is that I’m hoping against hope that CPS and CTU can reach an agreement soon and work together to get schools opened as soon as and as safely as possible. By safely as possible, I mean opened with high levels of vaccinated teachers and staff, masking and testing mandates for all staff, students, and school community members, and with classrooms that are properly staffed, equipped, clean, and ventilated.
The view from right field…
Ronald Reagan’s wingnut Education Secretary William Bennett has crawled out of his hole to throw another bomb at public education. He’s made a career of it. Even though he made his millions as the founding partner of the country’s largest remote learning company, Bennett now says that parents should seek other means of schooling before they “surrender” their children to those demanding a return to remote learning.
He is referring, of course, to teacher unions who are demanding a delay in school opening and a return to remote on the grounds that their schools are currently unsafe.
Bennett tells parents:
“See if you can go elsewhere. If this is the kind of regard they have for you and your children, knowing the circumstance it puts you in as a parent, particularly a single parent, and what this distance learning does for most children, they must not have much regard for you. Think about homeschooling. Think about a charter school. Think about sending your child elsewhere.”
The irony here is stunning.
Bennett, you may recall, was one of the founders of K12 Inc., the scandal-ridden remote learning corporation that has been a linchpin in conservative efforts to privatize public education.
Ultimately, Bennett was dropped as a partner in K12 after his racist comments caused the company great embarrassment.
A mental health crisis for children
I am neither a proponent nor an opponent of remote learning. It plays an important role in educating children who, for various reasons such as physical disabilities or unmanageable distance from the nearest public school, cannot attend in-person school.
But I am also aware of the risks to children’s health and overall well-being when they are forced by pandemic conditions into relative isolation for extended periods of time, even years.
Many children and teenagers are currently experiencing mental health problems, aggravated by the isolation and disruption of the pandemic. Three medical groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, recently declared a national state of emergency in children’s mental health. They cited “dramatic increases in emergency department visits for all mental health emergencies.”
Suicide attempts have risen, slightly among adolescent boys and sharply among adolescent girls. The number of E.R. visits for suspected suicide attempts by 12- to 17-year-old girls rose by 51 percent from early 2019 to early 2021, according to the C.D.C. — New York Times
NYT Education writer Dana Goldstein reports:
Districtwide closures, even those that last for a week or two, are a step backward after months in which classrooms largely remained open, even during a fall surge of the Delta variant… Those decisions could, in turn, radiate through the country, affecting child care, employment, and any confidence that the pandemic’s viselike grip was loosening.
Several of the shuttered districts serve predominantly Black, Hispanic, and low-income students, raising concerns about the educational gaps that widened during previous phases of the pandemic.
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