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Opinion Chicago teachers, students and parents all lose in the struggle over reopening schools

Pre-kindergarten teacher Angela Panush reads a story to her students at Dawes Elementary in Chicago on Jan. 11. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP, Pool)
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Jackie Spinner is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Post.

CHICAGO — If the country’s third-largest school district opens next week for optional in-person learning, my sons won’t be there. Although Chicago Public Schools developed a sophisticated plan for bringing back students and staff, including health screenings and strict mask and social-distancing requirements, teachers are required to return to the classroom and simultaneously teach children there and at home.

Essentially, my sons would be going back for remote learning, except without any of the perks.

Chicago’s mayor and teachers union have been at odds for months, starting just before Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) shuttered Illinois public schools in March. The union opposed Chicago’s initial efforts to stay open as the pandemic hit and has pushed back on subsequent reopening proposals.

This month, district officials welcomed the return of preschool and some special education students. About 40 percent of teachers and staff didn’t show up on the first day of classes in early January; consequently, they were locked out of their remote classrooms and docked pay. The dispute intensified this week after union members voted to reject in-person instruction.

City and the teachers union leaders are negotiating in hopes of avoiding a strike, which could start Thursday if teachers are locked out of their remote classrooms again. It’s not clear why the city didn’t involve teachers more closely in its reopening plan or include local school councils, each public school’s elected body of parents, community members, teachers and the principal.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Initially, I was prepared to send my first-grader back to our neighborhood public school. Like many kids, he desperately needs to get back into the classroom. Even though he would go only two days a week under our district’s hybrid learning plan, I figured it was better than the support I could offer him at home. Although I’m a college professor and teaching remotely myself, I’m a single working parent with two other children: a 2-year-old and an 8-year-old who is autistic. I’m barely holding it together.

I’ve watched some of the videos the district has produced, and I’m reasonably confident that my kids would be safe. I know that my kids can’t stay home until there is zero risk. That’s not realistic.

But it’s also not realistic to think that their educations won’t be shortchanged under a plan that divides teachers’ attention between two sets of students, with the added responsibility for supervising mask-wearing and social-distancing among those in the classroom.

The one-size-fits-all hybrid plan will shift schedules, shorten instruction and inevitably quarantine a pod if (when) someone becomes sick. The disruption this stands to create is so potentially detrimental that I’ve decided to home-school my oldest son, a third-grader.

The district wants teachers in buildings regardless of how many students show up, although it is reviewing additional requests for remote work as a result of the negotiations this week. The union wants even more teachers to be able to work remotely, particularly if fewer students return than the 70,000 the district expects on Feb. 1. The union also wants clearer health metrics for how and when schools open and for teachers and staff to be vaccinated first. . The union has now asked for a mediator to try and reach a deal, which Mayor Lori Lightfoot has indicated she is open to.

Several of our neighbors are public school teachers who have been trying to balance their own children at home while working remotely since September. Teaching remotely is hard work, yet they are being demonized amid a public health crisis while they’re doing the best they can for both their families and their students. One teacher told me, “‘Kids should be in school’ is a winning message. It’s easy to picture and hard to argue with.”

Chicago parents, teachers and students are caught in a public relations battle between the city and the teachers union. It’s painful to hear teachers criticized for their concerns about returning to classrooms as if anyone would choose the risky situation in which we’re all ensnared. It’s painful to hear families acknowledge how remote instruction has failed their children. The majority of Chicago public schools’ 355,000 students are Black or Hispanic, and the margins of public education have widened during a pandemic that has hit communities of color the hardest. The only people with good choices are those who have opinions and nothing at stake.

I’ve watched for months as my sons’ teachers have tried to engage students creatively through remote instruction. It hasn’t worked for all students, including my children — but that’s not because the teachers haven’t tried. It’s because my sons are diverse, kinesthetic learners who need more than remote instruction — no matter how good — is able to offer. Unfortunately, the district’s current plan is not going to improve their situation, and no PR maneuvering will change that.

Read more:

Rory Cooper: Fairfax County should open schools or stop vaccinating teachers

Helaine Olen: It’s time to admit it: Remote education is a failure

Emily Oster: Schools are not spreading covid-19. This new data makes the case.

Matt Bai: Teachers are vital public servants. Time for them to start acting like it.