The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion My kids are not okay. Canceling school is not sustainable — or responsible.

Adan Meza, a teacher at Benito Juarez High School, protests with other members of the Chicago Teachers Union and supporters outside City Hall on Jan. 5. Chicago school leaders canceled classes in the nation's third-largest school district for the second straight day after failing to reach an agreement with the teachers union over remote learning and other covid-19 safety protocols. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
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Jackie Spinner is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Post. Her three children attend Chicago Public Schools.

CHICAGO — The same week they returned to class from winter break, students in Chicago Public Schools are back at home, caught in yet another dispute between the nation’s third-largest district and its teachers union.

Classes were canceled Thursday for the second day in a row, with only a vague plan for the coming days and weeks — leaving students and parents in limbo. Nearly two years into pandemic schooling, city officials have to do better for families.

Some 73 percent of teachers voted late Tuesday to switch to remote instruction until Jan. 18 or until the city’s coronavirus infection rate — 23 percent, a record high — starts to taper. Instead of allowing them to teach online, the district canceled school and locked teachers out of their remote classrooms. Last year, too, the city locked teachers out of remote classrooms as both sides argued over safety measures for returning to in-person learning.

Hear Jackie Spinner discuss this piece in more detail on James Hohmann's podcast, "Please, Go On." Listen now.

Parents and guardians were notified at almost midnight that schools would be closed Wednesday. That left only a few overnight hours to make alternative child-care or work arrangements.

I’m a teacher myself and have endured the challenges of remote instruction as both a college professor and parent since March 2020. When schools closed early in the pandemic, I hastily devised lesson plans for my older sons, then in second grade and kindergarten. Like many others trying to make the best of a challenging situation, we banged pots in honor of front-line workers, kept journals and organized outdoor activities with neighbors — dancing to “It’s raining tacos” and waving to each other behind our masks. Like so many parents, I held on to hope that all our kids would be okay.

But my kids are not okay.

My autistic 9-year-old, who is fully vaccinated, was told to take his computer and math binder home Tuesday “just in case” school would not be open the next day. He was so distressed at the idea of his routine being disrupted again that he bolted home in tears, barely stopping to look as he crossed streets. In protest, he flung his belongings into the snow: first his gloves, then his hat, school papers, water bottle and, finally, his purple surgical mask.

My middle son, now a (vaccinated) second-grader, has not had an uninterrupted academic year since preschool. At the start of his kindergarten year, Chicago teachers went on strike for 11 days. The following spring, covid hit. For most of first grade, he struggled with remote learning. He needs to be back in the classroom, consistently and reliably.

The district didn’t have to cancel classes this week. But the city and Mayor Lori Lightfoot (whose child attends private school) decided to play hardball with the union. Both sides are at least continuing to negotiate — a frustratingly low bar.

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District officials and the mayor oppose remote learning. The union is holding out for more testing — for which parents currently have to opt in — and a lower infection metric for individual schools to go remote than the school district has offered.

There will be no “winners” in this standoff: The majority of Chicago’s roughly 340,000 public school students are Black or Hispanic and from communities hit hard by the pandemic. Remote instruction’s shortcomings for students — and teachers — have become well known.

Our kids need to be in school to learn. Other large school districts have been able to come to agreement on protocols — our district and teachers should be able to as well. Our children should be back in school with appropriate safety measures in place. Teachers, in the classrooms, should have a reasonable say in what those measures are.

Better testing, better masks and a more individualized approach to remote learning are critical. If the past two years have shown anything, it’s that we have to learn to live with covid and the mitigations it requires. Canceling school is not sustainable — or responsible. It’s exhausting.

On Wednesday morning, I told my older kids they could read a book to earn screen time while I was teaching my college students via Zoom. I printed out some math worksheets and pinged neighbors about hosting outdoor recess. I set up my 3-year-old with a stack of puzzles. An hour later, as I prepared to teach with my sons running around the house, I stopped making plans. I realized I have no reserves left for another deployment in the covid wars.

Hear Jackie Spinner discuss this piece in more detail on James Hohmann’s podcast, “Please, Go On.” Listen now.