A turbulent month for Chicago Public Schools families and teachers came to a boil for the Burley Elementary School community as they logged on to a virtual meeting Wednesday evening and spilled candid, sometimes tearful, stories illustrating the stakes they all face amid the uncertainty of the city’s school reopening plan.
After news broke mid-meeting that Chicago Teachers Union members would vote on collectively refusing to report in person next week, several parents at the Lakeview school recited a letter endorsed by 54 of them urging CPS and union leaders to come to an agreement that will put their children back in classrooms. Some teachers in turn said reopening was not safe and that championing its cause ignores the students of color who were less likely to opt for returning to in-person learning.
Before reading out the letter, parents shared a collection of anonymous anecdotes that painted a picture of despair in the era of remote learning.
There was a description of a boy’s “full-blown meltdowns” since classrooms closed in March — episodes severe enough to merit psychiatric help. There were multiple reports of other children showing possible symptoms of depression and anxiety. And still more stories of students transferring out after roadblocks in remote learning.
“Our once-socially outgoing daughter has slowly become more introverted and has frequent meltdowns because she is unable to see her classmates and friends,” said one “This has noticeably altered her personality and it scares us that she’ll never fully recover.”
The testimonies were culled by a grassroots organization of parents dubbed the Chicago Parents Collective, created Jan. 11 to plead the case that CPS must go ahead with the next stage of its reopening plan, for about 70,000 kindergarten through eighth graders to begin in-person classes on Feb. 1.
The organization of families who support open schools was spearheaded by Burley parents Ryan Griffin and John Fitzgerald, who sent the group’s letter to district and union leaders after the Local School Council meeting.
“How did we get here? Politicians and union leaders will all tell their tale of ‘who did what to whom?’ As CPS parents, we don’t care. The rhetoric, the walkouts, the fighting. These are having a devastating effect on families across this city,” the letter states.
But seventh grade humanities teacher Emily Skowronek questioned the rush to reopen with COVID-19 alive and roaring — and a vaccine for teachers that could be weeks away. She called on community members to recognize the “privilege” they have to be part of a school with a high return rate of students.
“By asking so loudly to return whether through actions or words, I do not believe we are sending a message of allyship to communities of color in our city,” Skowronek said. “It saddens me that this does not match the conversations and learning that we have in the classroom addressing systemic racism.”
Among CPS elementary school families, 31% of Latino students, 33% of Asian students, 34% of Black students and 67.5% of white students chose in-person learning, which means students who have returned or are due to return to school by Feb. 1 are not representative of the district’s overall enrollment. About 11% of district students are white, for example.
Griffin acknowledged the parents’ collective does not yet reflect CPS’s population and said he hopes to reach more parents of diverse backgrounds. But regardless of who makes up the families opting to return to schools, each parent must have that choice, he said.
“They’re not diverse schools, and we readily admit that,” Griffin said in a phone interview. “That is framing this discussion. And we’re just asking, why is that the framing of this discussion? We can’t say, ‘We want to send our kid back to school,’ because we don’t have diversity?”
The simmering power struggle between the union and district heated up Wednesday evening with CTU’s governing body asking members to vote on whether to refuse to report to classrooms Monday. That’s the day thousands of elementary teachers are supposed to show up to school buildings ahead of their students’ return the following week. No such date has been set for high school students.
Griffin and Fitzgerald said that ongoing back-and-forth has left them feeling forgotten, so they started with the Burley parent directory and grew their organization to about 50 parents spanning nine schools. They fear the union has grown too powerful and will succeed at delaying the Feb. 1 return date for their children.
“After the last strike, after basically the threats by CTU to strike right now over this, it’s looking more and more like we’re going to push to get him into a private school,” Fitzgerald told the Tribune about his second grader. “Quite frankly, we’ve lost confidence in the ability of CTU to support our children.”
Other community groups that include CPS parents have mostly been more aligned with CTU’s interests regarding school reopening plans, which have been delayed several times amid ongoing union opposition. Raise Your Hand, a group of parents and other residents, has criticized CPS’s push to reopen and so has the new Chicago’s Grassroots Education Movement, which bills itself as an organization of parents, community members, teacher organizations and unions. And dozens of Local School Councils have sent out letters decrying the reopening plan. A majority of aldermen have also come out against it.
CPS began its phased-in reopening earlier this month with the return of some preschool and special education students after the district scrapped an earlier plan to bring students back to classrooms in the fall. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson argued that too many families are struggling with remote learning, that it’s inequitable and that it has hurt the city’s most vulnerable students the most.
Officials have cited public health guidelines behind the decision as well as a $100 million investment in safeguards against coronavirus transmission in schools.
Toward the end of the emotional testimonies during Wednesday night’s Burley meeting, the Local School Council’s community representative Robert Blitstein said both sides of the reopening debate had compelling cases.
“I’d just like to say everyone who spoke is right, OK?” Blitstein, a former CPS principal, said. “I really sympathize with the parents and the kids who want to be in school, who want to socialize, and who need to socialize. … I’d also like to say that I really understand where the teachers are coming from.”