With the start of a typical school year right around the corner, discussions are taking place about what the eventual return will look like. As an educator and a mom, I am torn between options: Full remote learning to ensure that children and students stay healthy; or a hybrid, with some in-person instruction.
But two major questions loom in the minds of every educator and parent: Can our nation keep children and families healthy, even with limited classroom teaching? If remote learning continues, will students lose too much educationally?
As a former teacher in three Chicago public high schools on the South Side, I think the answer to the first question is a clear “No.” Our nation can’t keep our kids and their families healthy without strong federal leadership, which is needed to have any chance of slowing the spread of coronavirus.
A case in point: One of my grossest days in CPS was the time a student threw up in the library entryway. It was flu season and only two janitors were working that day, so it took around six hours for one of them to clean up the vomit. The student went to the nurse’s office, but she wasn’t at our school that day, so he returned, still sick, for his library lesson. Meanwhile, students and teachers continued to fill the room.
The custodian also found a dead mouse nearby.
Cleanliness has always been a problem in CPS, but schools will need far more cleaning to keep the virus at bay. In CPS’ defense, their reopening plan includes hiring 400 additional janitors. But that’s less than one per school. And there are no plans, beyond those already in place, to hire additional school nurses.
CPS has two other big problems: transportation and contact tracing. Students often travel to school across town, on public transit. Who knows how many transit riders will be wearing masks, or free of COVID-19? In the event of an outbreak, students could bring the virus back to a community far from their school, making contact tracing virtually impossible.
Other districts, too, have problems. My children attend a suburban elementary school that is giving parents a choice between remote learning or half-day school. For two working parents, managing this becomes a conundrum.
The suburban school where I teach, East Leyden High School, has a lot of the supports that CPS does not — a full-time school nurse, enough janitors, and our own transportation for our students. But the positivity rates on COVID-19 testing are high in the communities we serve, just as they are in Chicago, and our superintendent recently announced that we would begin the year with remote learning for the sake of our students’ and faculty’s health.
Excuses for reopening too soon
But what about learning loss and the so-called “achievement gap”?
That’s an interesting argument, given that our country has for decades failed to tackle the problems of summer learning loss among low-income children and the glaring inequities among our schools. If we really cared, all of our schools would have enough teachers to lower class sizes and adequate resources like up-to-date textbooks. We would have a year-round school schedule and provide birth-to-5 daycare free.
Instead, some of our leaders use this argument to push for reopening schools before they are ready.
Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence argued recently that many students rely on school for meals. This is true: In 2018, according to the USDA, the National School Lunch Program served free or low-priced lunch to 29.7 million children daily.
But therein lies the problem: Children depend on schools to eat. Shouldn’t a wealthy country and its wealthy employers ensure that families have enough money to feed their children?
“Schools must open so parents can work.” “Schools must open so the economy can return.” “Schools must open so children can eat.” “Schools must open so children can learn.”
We all understand the urgency and the need. But those of us in education also understand that our public schools don’t have adequate resources to do so.
If schools do reopen, many of us will go back to the classroom and send our own children off to school, knowing we are guinea pigs put in harm’s way in an experiment poised to fail without extreme interventions.
I want to be hopeful, but those interventions aren’t happening at the scale that is needed. So I fear the worst, for our children, educators, and families.
Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. She taught in CPS for 15 years. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva
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