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Chicago parents say remote learning isn’t working and want their voices heard in a city still grappling with a plan

Supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union prepare for a car caravan as negotiations with Chicago Public Schools continue.
Supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union prepare for a car caravan as negotiations with Chicago Public Schools continue. (Eileen T. Meslar/Reuters)
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CHICAGO — As the Chicago teachers union and the school district continue to argue over reopening terms for in-person instruction, parents have organized to express frustration with the standoff and make their voices heard.

“Parents feel left out,” said Kate Jablonski, a mother of twins who are in kindergarten at New Field Primary School. “Nobody asked parents what was working and what wasn’t working.”

More than 500 parents have joined a grass-roots organization called the Chicago Parents Collective, which is asking the district to reopen schools and hosting a rally on Sunday in Humboldt Park. Schools have been closed for months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Another parent-led coalition, CPS Sick-Out, is asking Chicagoans to call their children in sick on Monday, when the city says it will open for preschoolers through eighth-graders and special-education students.

Jablonski said she is helping CPS Sick-Out because there’s a growing concern that students are getting lost in the squabble between the district and union.

“It really feels like we’re screaming into the void and nothing is happening,” she said. Jablonski said she’s not against reopening schools, but “I’m against a blanketed reopening that is pushing all the teachers back into schools.”

On Friday night, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) implored teachers to return to the classroom for in-person instruction. Admonishing the union, Lightfoot warned of consequences if it didn’t work in good faith toward an agreement.

“Then we will have no choice but to take further action,” Lightfoot said. “Let me be clear, none of us want to go there and we shouldn’t have to.”

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey has said the union won’t be “bullied,” and he contends that educators will continue teaching remotely until the union has an “agreement for a safe return.”

Six things to know about Chicago’s standoff with teachers over reopening schools

Remel Terry, mother of a 16-year-old at Collins Academy High School, said parents want their voices heard amid a tug of war that has left everyone in limbo.

“After almost a year of doing remote learning, we are still arguing about how to keep safe inside our schools,” Terry said. “I really wish there was a better way to deal with this.”

A “Get CPS kids back to class in Chicago” petition launched three weeks ago asks parents to show support for the district’s reopening plan and has more than 1,700 backers. Among the parents pushing for a speedy reopening through the Chicago Parents Collective is Lisa Mishkin, mother of a sixth-grader and an eighth-grader at Coonley Elementary School.

“I got involved to finally feel like I have a voice,” Mishkin said. “There has been fear among parents about speaking out, that they might seem anti-teacher.”

Many parents are simply asking for a reopening plan that isn’t constantly changing.

Ashley Christian is one of those parents. She said her 5-year-old son, who is autistic, was excited when schools reopened three weeks ago to prekindergarten and special-ed cluster students, under the district’s tiered plan.

“Getting any kindergartner to pay attention to a computer for hours is difficult,” Christian said. “It was really a struggle.”

For two weeks, her child returned to in-person instruction, began riding the bus and was happy, Christian said.

At the start of last week, after being told by the union that educators and staff would stay remote, the district reverted to online instruction for the 3,200 prekindergarten and special-ed cluster students, a group of less than 20 percent of all students, who had returned for in-person classes.

On Wednesday, the district began making daily announcements, relaying each evening whether it would continue remote instruction.

“It’s really unfair to the children, to get them excited and acclimated to going back and then it’s snatched right back,” Christian said. “It creates a lot of anxiety, because you don’t know how your day is going to go.”

For weeks, the district — third largest in the nation — and union have gone back and forth over what should be done. The union contends that not all schools have been given proper equipment or ventilation, and it wants an agreed-upon Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health metric, among other things.

It also said teachers and staff should be able to work remotely, voluntarily coming to work in person, until they receive the vaccine.

The district insists the buildings are safe, per Chicago Department of Public Health evaluations and CDC guidance for reopening schools. Lightfoot said the situation is “a great disappointment.”

Both Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools chief executive Janice Jackson insist that in-person instruction will begin again on Monday, even as the union has instructed its members to work remotely.

The union said that if the district locks out additional educators and staff from remote work, as it did with dozens of teachers and other employees this month, it will strike over unfair labor practices, citing health and safety concerns. “Saying we’re locking you out on Monday is not the path to go down,” Sharkey said. “That’s not going to work.”

Jablonski lamented the way the situation has unfolded. She stands with the educators but said the way remote learning is set up is not working for many families. Instead of trying to force all teachers back into the classroom, Jablonski thinks the district should allow teachers to do online instruction and look at ways to improve remote learning to make it better for the students.

School curriculum should be adjusted, Jablonski said, to give teachers more time to connect with their students instead of rushing through the material.

“The pandemic is kind of here to stay,” Jablonski said. “Yes, we’ve got a vaccine, but the rollout is slow and there are new variants. So I think we need to focus on improving remote learning and creating better solutions for families that can’t stay at home” because they are working.

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