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Local School Councils Pushing Chicago Public Schools To Halt Reopening Efforts: ‘We Reject This Plan’

At least three local school councils have passed resolutions asking CPS to halt its school reopening plans, saying it's not safe for students, teachers and families at this stage of the pandemic.

A sign in a Chicago school hallway reminding students to keep 6 feet distance apart.
Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat
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WEST RIDGE — Blanca Sandoval has had a rough time with Chicago Public Schools doing remote learning, with her third-grade daughter often requiring help to stay focused.

But after her family’s own tragic brush with coronavirus, Sandoval said she’d rather have her daughter learning remotely than in the classroom at West Ridge’s Clinton Elementary.

“It has been hard,” she said. “But even with that, I’d rather have her at home. I don’t think it’s safe enough yet.”

Sandoval joined the rest of Clinton’s local school council to pass a resolution urging CPS to halt its school reopening plans, one of at least three city schools appealing to the district in recent weeks.

The district is moving forward with a phased, student-optional school reopening plan for early next year over the vociferous objections of the Chicago Teachers Union. Now more local school councils — virtually unknown groups before this summer’s push to eliminate police officers from schools — also are voicing concerns.

Local school councils are elected bodies made up of parents, community members, teachers and school staff. They do not have authority to determine when their schools open. Groups from schools in Bucktown and Chicago Lawn have approved similar resolutions opposing reopening.

District leaders say the reopening plan gives families flexibility to decide what works best for them. But the councils say their communities have been hit hard by the pandemic and it makes little sense to open schools with the virus surging in Chicago and with a vaccine rollout underway.

“We reject this plan, which is not in the best interest of the children of Chicago,” the local school council at Brentano Math and Science Academy in Bucktown wrote in its resolution. “We cannot reopen this way now, when it is more dangerous than ever, when we are so close to the end.”

CPS officials are tentatively planning to reopen pre-kindergarten classes in January and bring back students in kindergarten to eighth grade Feb. 1.

The plan allows CPS families to opt out of in-person learning and continue with remote instruction. Teachers will be recalled to the classroom unless they request formal leave for family or medical reasons.

CPS officials have said in-person instruction is best for most students, that in-school COVID transmissions rates are low and a safety and cleanliness program will accompany school reopening.

“Chicago Public Schools believes every parent has the right to make a decision in the best interest of their child — whether to continue learning at home or to transition in-person in January,” CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said in a statement. “The 77,000 families who chose in-person learning deserve that option to be available to them without judgement.”

Earlier this month, the teachers union released a set of demands for a return to in-person learning. It would require the city not to allow in-person learning if its coronavirus positivity rate is above 3 percent. The city’s positivity rate is at 10.2 percent.

The local school councils speaking out say the CPS reopening plan could further harm communities of color, which have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Clinton Elementary, for example, is in a West Ridge community that in the early stages of the pandemic had the biggest coronavirus outbreak in the state.

The situation in West Ridge is compounded by the fact many of its families live in intergenerational housing, where transmission to older relatives, who are more at risk, is easier.

Sandoval lives in such a house. Her husband and 21-year-old son were stricken with the virus, and Sandoval’s father-in-law died from COVID-19 earlier this month, she said. They all lived together.

Whatever the chances of transmission at school, Sandoval said she doesn’t want to increase the chances of students bringing the virus home to their families.

“We don’t want what we’re going through to happen to other people,” Sandoval said.

The Clinton local school council’s resolution was supported by the teacher and school staff representatives on the board. Sandoval is a parent representative on the council.

“They have a lot of concerns, reasonably,” Sandoval said of teachers and staff. “Cleaning of the school has been an issue for a long time.”

Southside Occupational High School in Chicago Lawn has also seen its local school council express concern with the reopening plan.

Southside teaches students with disabilities, and 80 percent of the students are minorities, according to the local school council. That population should not “be treated as guinea pigs for a reopening plan,” the school council said in its resolution.

“This year has been one of trauma, instability and mourning for many of our young people who need consistency rather than interruption to routines they are just finally getting accustomed,” the council wrote in its resolution passed last week.

Reopening schools has been a divisive issue across the United States. Some major public school systems, including New York City’s, have reopened recently after closing due to coronavirus, while others, including Los Angeles’, remain closed due to COVID-19 surges.

Chicago has been trying to reopen for months. The district initially planned to reopen buildings under a hybrid model in September, but it delayed that plan, citing concerns from families.

October surveys showed about 1 in 3 prekindergarten students and children with disabilities planned to return to campuses, with the majority opting to continue learning at home.

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