Chicago Families Debate School Reopening

Chicago Families Debate School Reopening

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After days of rising tension between Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union, we are now in the midst of what local officials are calling a 48-hour “cooling off” period. Students are continuing to learn remotely as the two sides try to avoid a strike or lockout.

The battle in the country’s third-largest school system has become one of the nation’s most contentious over school reopening, with both sides claiming to fight on behalf of the most vulnerable families.

But throughout the debate, the voices of parents and caregivers haven’t always been heard. So over the last several days, we have been talking to them about what they think. Roughly 60 percent of families have decided to keep their children home for now, but even among that group, there were a range of perspectives.

Darlene O’Banner, 63, is raising two great-granddaughters, who are in pre-K and second grade. Her mother, 81, also lives with them. She has opted to keep the kids remote for now, until she and her mother have been vaccinated. But she is critical of the union for blocking in-person instruction for the children who need it.

She thinks that white teachers in particular don’t want to come back to schools in Black neighborhoods, where the rates of infection are higher than elsewhere in the city.

“Don’t say because of safety,” said O’Banner, who is Black. “Just say, ‘I’m just afraid of it, and I just don’t think I can deal with it.’”

Lilia Guevara, an immigrant from Mexico, has three children, including eighth-grade twins, both autistic, who she believes are falling behind both academically and socially.

But Guevara decided not to send them back when she heard their principal describe what the school day would look like: The children would have to stay in the same classroom at their desks all day, with plastic dividers between them. “I thought it was just too much for the kids to adjust,” she said.

Guevara said she believed a strike, whoever is to blame, would be bad for families, and encourage more of them to enroll in one of the online schools whose ads keep popping up on her Facebook feed.

Claiborne Wade works for a nonprofit as a parent liaison at Oscar DePriest Elementary School, where two of his children attend. He currently works remotely four days a week and goes into the school once a week.

Wade and his wife don’t plan to send their children back until young kids can be vaccinated (for which there is currently no time frame). He said he didn’t think that young children would be able to keep their masks on, or stay socially distanced.

Wade supports the union, he said, and thinks that teachers shouldn’t be forced to go back into schools until they are vaccinated. “Your health comes first, and if the teachers don’t feel right coming back into the classroom, they shouldn’t be penalized.”

Remote learning has been harder on children of color than their white peers, with a larger impact on both their mental health and academic performance. Yet the parents of children of color are often more wary of sending them back to classrooms, our colleagues reported this week.

In part, that’s a reaction to the long history of racism in schools and doubt in public health systems, especially as the pandemic has disproportionately harmed nonwhite Americans.

“Everything that has happened in this country just in the last year has proved that Black people have no reason to trust the government,” said Farah Despeignes, a Black mother of two in the Bronx, N.Y., who serves as an elected parent leader on her local school board.

Sarah Carpenter, the executive director of Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group in Tennessee, explained the thinking of many Black parents: “I’m not going to trust somebody else to keep my children safe.”

A related story: In wealthier neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., schools are “at maximum capacity while seats remain empty in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, because families there have opted in high numbers to stay home and continue with virtual learning,” The Washington Post reports.

Read The Times’s story here.

President Biden’s pick to lead the Education Department testified before the Senate on Wednesday. A former public-school teacher and principal, Miguel Cardona would leave his post as Connecticut commissioner of education to join the cabinet if confirmed. Here is a sense of who he is and how he operates.

  • Last fall, Cardona set an expectation that Connecticut schools would reopen classrooms — a notable effort in a Democratic-led state. As a result, The Washington Post wrote, “debate in most of Connecticut centered on how — not whether — to reopen.”

  • Although the Connecticut chapter of the American Federation of Teachers publicly criticized the state’s reopening plan, Cardona managed to maintain a good relationship with local union members, Chalkbeat reported.

  • Cardona will have to confront the legacy left by Betsy DeVos, the former education secretary, of underfunded public schools. “DeVos was a strong proponent of school choice, but Cardona is more reserved on the issue, preferring to highlight the importance of public education,” The Hartford Courant wrote.

  • Cardona learned English as a child and wrote his doctoral dissertation on how to help students like him get the training they need. “He could play a role in puncturing the conventional wisdom that has cast English learners as weighed down by shortcomings,” Kevin Carey wrote in The Times.

  • Dartmouth College reinstated five sports teams it had discontinued in July. The school said its reversal had to do with concerns about compliance with federal civil rights law.

  • Villanova University and the University of California, Berkeley, both warned of recent surges in new virus cases. Villanova may move to all-virtual instruction; Berkeley asked students to “self-sequester.”

  • Michigan’s push to educate continues. After offering pandemic frontline workers free tuition for community college, the state announced that it would also offer any resident 25 and older the opportunity to earn a tuition-free associate degree or skills certificate.

  • A good read: Our colleague Shawn Hubler spent time at the University of California, Davis, which is providing free testing, masks and quarantine housing to tens of thousands of people in the surrounding community. “This is the key to us getting back to normalcy,” the mayor told her.

CalMatters spoke with six college seniors who are preparing to graduate into a world ravaged by the pandemic and resulting economic crisis.

“There was a sense of loss where I was giving up my college experience and not being able to have a senior year,” said Amanda Lee, an economics major at the University of California, Berkeley. “Nobody knew the pandemic would be going on for this long.”

It’s a wonderful, if wrenching piece. We suggest you take the time to read their stories.

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