CHICAGO — As Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union clash over schooling during the pandemic, parents are struggling to balance concerns about their kids’ education, safety and child care — and, in some cases, they’re considering moving their kids out of the district.
CPS canceled classes for a second consecutive day Thursday as the district and union debate whether in-person or remote learning is the best option during the city’s worst-ever COVID-19 surge.
Union members voted late Tuesday night to reject in-person learning until the city’s COVID-19 numbers drop significantly or CPS puts in place more safety mitigations, like increased testing. CPS leaders said they will not implement virtual learning districtwide and locked out teachers who did not report to their classrooms in person Wednesday. With a fraction of teachers showing up, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez canceled school Thursday, as well.
It’s not clear how long the impasse could last. The city filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the union, and officials are considering litigation to force teachers back to their classrooms if negotiations continue to stall, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Wednesday.
Parents said they’re desperate for a resolution — and a stable learning environment for their kids.
‘Fed Up’ With Conflict, Confusion
Numerous parents said they scrambled to find last-minute child care Wednesday. The union did not announce its vote to go remote and CPS didn’t officially inform families there wouldn’t be classes until about 11 p.m. Tuesday.
Joe Rappold, whose child attends Grover Cleveland Elementary School in Irving Park, said he and his wife can work from home while their kids do virtual learning. But he said he’s “outraged” at the timing of the union vote, and he sympathizes with other parents who can’t easily balance work and child care.
“Parents aren’t college kids. We were asleep, and we only knew about this because my wife needed to get up in the middle of the night and she saw something” about the vote, Rappold said. “I would have preferred they had given us more time.”
Adam Solovy, whose two children attend Audubon School in Roscoe Village, said he’s “fed up” with coronavirus conflicts between the CTU and CPS. His family isn’t prepared for schools to go back to remote learning for an extended time, he said.
“Shifting to remote learning would mean a rollercoaster of different babysitters for my children,” Solovy said. “They’d be bouncing between my ex, my current partner, my mom, her husband and any other babysitters.”
Other parents without consistent access to child care said they had to call off work on short notice to be with their kids at home.
“What if I lost my job because I couldn’t go to work today?” said Hilliary Herod, whose three children attend Henry Clay Elementary in Hegewisch. “If Illinois has no pandemic unemployment, what are parents supposed to do? I don’t think CPS understands that. I don’t think CTU understands that. I don’t think they care.”
Herod said she is OK with CPS “putting their foot down” and canceling school after teachers voted not to teach in person. She’s frustrated with the CTU, who “wants it their way or no way,” she said.
But if Herod’s kids aren’t at school, she’ll be forced to cut her own hours at work to ensure that “at least two or three days out of the week, I’m able to be home with them,” she said. It’s not a theoretical situation, she said: It’s exactly what she experienced earlier in the pandemic, as family and friends weren’t always available to help out.
One of Herod’s children is “in the second half of first grade, and [he] still can’t read,” she said. “I’ve done everything I can to help him, but I’m not an educator. … If my kids aren’t in school learning, they’re getting the back end of it. It’s not fair to the kids.”
‘A Rock And A Hard Place’
Samantha Arauz, whose son is a sixth grader at Orozco Community Academy in Pilsen, said she’ll consider transferring him to a private school if remote learning continues for too long.
Arauz is stuck “between a rock and a hard place,” she said. While she wants her son safe, he performs better academically with in-person classes. He also misses sports and after-school tutoring.
Arauz said she would support additional protocols like daily coronavirus testing or regularly sending tests home to families if it meant her son could continue in-person instruction.
“When he’s not in school, I find I have to supplement” his education, said Arauz, who has three other children. “But I’m not a teacher. I’m doing the best I can.”
Jennifer Jones, whose two teenagers attend large Northwest Side high schools, said she fully supports the union’s vote to go remote and she was disappointed CPS canceled classes. Jones said her sons are prepared to learn remotely and feel safer learning from home with cases spiking citywide and inconsistent mask-wearing at school.
“Given the ongoing pandemic, CPS should have been prepared for a switch to remote learning,” Jones said.
One of Jones’ sons is experiencing COVID-like symptoms but tested negative. He’s stayed home while he awaits a PCR test, but CPS policy prevents him from doing remote learning because he hasn’t yet tested positive.
“I urge CPS to reconsider the protocol for access to remote learning to include [symptomatic] students who are waiting for COVID test results,” Jones said.
‘It’s Time’ For A Different Approach
Before the Omicron variant tore through the city, Carnegie Elementary in Woodlawn was publicly struggling with the virus.
After classroom assistant jonL Bush died of coronavirus amid a Thanksgiving break spike at the school, Carnegie staff and the CTU demanded in-school vaccination and testing options across CPS.
They also demanded more custodial staff and faster response times to issues of cleanliness and COVID-19 prevention.
Sherretha Richardson, whose daughter, Jemma, is a fourth grader, said those demands are non-negotiable if in-person classes return. Jemma’s class was in quarantine twice between Thanksgiving break and winter break, Richardson said. More than 100 people were quarantined at Carnegie every day Dec. 4-10, though that number dropped to 28 as of Tuesday, according to CPS data.
“I just feel that with … everything that’s going on, we need to shut down,” Richardson said. “Especially if we’re seeing the numbers are higher than they were when the pandemic first hit, just let the teachers work from home.”
During the pandemic, in-person and online instruction has come with challenges, said Jemma, who touted her perfect attendance since kindergarten despite quarantine.
Showing up to Carnegie only “sometimes” feels safe, while lagging internet speeds can make virtual school “harder,” the fourth grader said.
The most difficult thing about the pandemic is “you don’t get to see your friends,” Jemma said. “I miss my favorite after-school [program] where we do entrepreneuring, and we learned how to multiply double-digit numbers, which we started to learn now [in class]. But in my after school, I [already] learned it.”
CPS and the CTU need to work together to make school life easier for students and their parents, said Emily McGinley, whose daughter is a first grader at Carnegie.
Rather than getting “caught up in all of the politics and posturing,” officials should develop a “hyperlocal” process for responding to the pandemic, McGinley said.
“I just think it’s time for a different way to approach things,” she said. “This ongoing antagonism is unproductive. It’s a false binary in terms of how decisions need to be made and problems have to be solved.”
McGinley and her spouse “want to be invested in the public schools,” she said. But if the latest dispute continues indefinitely, she wouldn’t be surprised to see an exodus of parents who’ve reached their wits’ end.
“We refuse to put our kids in a private school,” she said. “But people who have the means and the privilege to do that, and are sort of on the fence about whether to put their kids in private school, this kind of thing is going to lead to greater divestment … from the folks who have the resources.”
‘We Help Us’
Marcelina Pedraza, whose daughter attends George Washington Elementary in East Side, picked up 200 rapid testing kits Wednesday to give to community members. A neighborhood teacher organized a similar drive of nearly 200 rapid tests Monday, and 20 percent came back positive, she said.
Almost one-third of Washington students were absent Monday, said Pedraza, who serves on the local school council. Among them: her daughter, who was still waiting for the result of her coronavirus test. Her daughter never received a school-issued test because she was quarantined before winter break.
The district sent 150,000 coronavirus tests to schools in communities hit hardest by the pandemic before winter break. Of the 35,817 tests processed Dec. 26-Jan. 1, about 70 percent were deemed invalid, in part due to weather- and holiday-related shipping issues.
“I didn’t send my daughter back because I didn’t feel it was safe,” Pedraza said.
With their smaller testing drives, Southeast Siders are “basically doing the job that CPS is supposed to be doing,” Pedraza said. “Where did all those millions of dollars go that they got from the federal government to help with this pandemic?”
Alejandra Martínez, whose three children attend Bright School in South Deering and New Sullivan Elementary in South Chicago, said her entire family caught coronavirus before and during winter break. The district and city officials’ stance that school must be in person is “very upsetting” as the virus runs rampant, particularly as Martínez’s oldest child has asthma, she said.
“I understand that remote learning is not ideal for our children — that their education will be negatively impacted,” Martínez said. “But let’s be honest here: Their education will not matter if their health declines.”
Martínez and another Southeast Side parent are considering an informal “homeschooling” group, where kids could be tutored together during virtual learning or school closures. They’re considering asking local libraries to lower printing prices so parents can make their own educational packets for home learning, she said.
“Who helps us? We help us,” Martínez said.
Reporters Alex V. Hernandez, Ariel Parrella-Aureli, Jake Wittich, Madison Savedra, Atavia Reed and Pascal Sabino contributed to this report.
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