Let’s start with the fact that I’ve written on the topic of schools re-opening during covid multiple times already. Last week, Chicago announced that their schools would close, and almost immediately thereafter, High School District 214 announced they were taking the same action. I fired off an op-ed which appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Monday, then wrote a D214-specific follow-up which I put at my personal website.
Last night, there was a board meeting, which I attended and used my three minutes to object in particular to the lack of transparency in their announcement, and the lack of any sort of metrics. Other parents similarly objected, in one case pointing specifically to students’ mental health needs (the school board says that PE teachers have been tasked with this, and, in any case, their solution has been that the answer is not to eliminate that which is causing the mental health issues — lack of regular contact with other students — but simply for parents to “fix their kids” by getting them counseling, etc.). But another public-comment speaker called for teachers to be able to work from home without being required to request a medical exception (they are supposed to be teaching from their classrooms), and the teachers’ union president said, “we want to teach but we are afraid” and then talked about some proposal the union had made (but without providing detail — I guess because the proposal had already been communicated to the board; there was nothing on the union’s website or facebook page so I don’t know that it’s a serious proposal, or maybe it is “serious” but not something they want the public to know about). There were two students speaking as part of a “D214 Justice” group — they have a website and the usual sort of manifesto calling for anti-racist initiatives, including multiple teacher in-service days, creating ethnic studies electives and adding ethnic studies to the regular curriculum (“incorporate African American history across all subject-areas”), and they complained that “white moms” were racist for wanting schools to reopen. A black man defiantly took off his mask and talked about “so-called covid-19” before launching into a speech about more children dying of the flu or from drowning; that caused some commotion and a delay as they had to sanitize the mike before the next speaker, who started with an objection to “science deniers” before getting into what he had prepared, a call for the district to teach more about black achievers and less about racists like Lincoln (yeah, from what I understand it’s unknown whether Lincoln’s comments denouncing equality were his true belief or an effort to get support, and it doesn’t matter much anyway; his examples were generally poorly chosen in any case, citing a black mathematician who should be added to the curriculum instead of John Nash — and, look, I don’t find it credible that John Nash, or any of the others he listed, were actually on the curriculum, or, if they were, they were there for their own “diversity” reasons — e.g., Nash as an achiever who was mentally ill).
Then the superintendent had his say, and he claimed that, truly, they would love to re-open, but the state and county have given them such onerous requirements, and have continued to issue new requirements so relentlessly, that they cannot reopen, and cannot even provide any sort of timeline or metrics for when they will reopen. It’s out of their hands, he says. It’s the fault of the federal, state, and county governments. The county won’t help us with contact tracing. The state requires that all school nurses and janitors have fitted N95 masks, and told us so with no warning. We really, really want to re-open, but, except for the homeless kids, the special ed kids, and kids in off-site programs like construction, we can’t, as long as the requirements are so burdensome and keep increasing.
Are they being honest?
Is the fear of a lawsuit from a sick teacher not merely a secondary but the driving concern?
Is the close connection of the school board and the administration, to teachers who don’t want to work onsite driving the decision, with or without union pressure specifically? One school board member is herself a teacher. (Could be more — she was the only one who self-identified that way.) Another appeared unusually concerned about whether teachers would be furloughed.
Clearly, they are seeking cover in the decision of all the feeder elementary school districts to go all-remote (though some of them are offering what amounts to on-site daycare at which workers supervise kids watching their devices, for a fee, of course), as well as the Chicago public schools.
And when I left the building, I found myself unable to answer the key question: after what I saw, do I trust that the board and the school administration is honest and transparent, and is doing all they/it can to open schools back up?
And here are my concerns.
One of the school board members, in her comments/questions, objected to the parent complaints (including my own) that they had acted without integrity in shutting down the school to in-person learning without any transparency, a school board vote, or other communication in the meantime. The board meeting was last Thursday at 7:30 AM. It lacked the usual communication. And it was a “done deal.”
Does the school board customarily let the superintendent make even highly controversial decisions, then rubber-stamp them afterwards with board votes? I assume not. One must assume that the school board members communicated with the superintendent and with each other and came to a decision, viewing the vote tonight as a mere formality.
But the school board member’s justification: they had to act in such a time-critical way, that they had no choice other than to make the decision before they voted upon it. No, that’s not an exact quote, but yikes.
(Did they violate the Open Meetings Act? Or did they find ways of getting around this, with multiple consensus-building calls of smaller groups or with e-mails that served the same purpose? Or did the superintendent make the decision himself knowing that the board would rubber-stamp?)
Some of their assertions seemed to be less than entirely true. The superintendent said, “as of yesterday’s guidance, we are required to have fitted N95 masks for all school nurses and custodial staff.” Actually, the guidance requires that a school nurse wear such equipment when evaluating a student showing symptoms. In addition, staff should be similarly equipped when “cleaning areas used by an individual known or suspected to have COVID-19” — which does appear excessive if its merely a matter of a desk, classroom, or hallway; if a student threw up, then sure, greater protection is warranted. At the same time, the document also suggests that the “areas used” is rather narrowly-defined by giving the school nurses’ office as an example of such an area. They also asserted that the new guidance requires 6-foot distance at all times but I not only don’t see that, but see indications in the new document that assume otherwise, e.g., by instructing that contact tracing be done in any case where students were within 6 feet for over 15 minutes.
They shrugged off any sort of concrete reopening plan with the statement, “it’s out of our hands.” This is appalling to me. An entity that is truly focused on getting students on campus as soon as possible, or, minimally, providing a tangible plan so that parents can trust that they will do so, would not just throw up their hands.
My son is already expecting to be remote for the entire school year, that is, until a vaccine arrives. If that’s the district’s real intention, then they need to be honest. If this is what transpires and yet we hear from them repeatedly, “we want to reopen but gosh-darn-it, we can’t,” they are failing in their responsibilities to act ethically and with integrity, to implement the oath that they took upon joining the board.
What is their next step?
Are they just going to wait passively to see what the next guidance is? For how long? They kept pointing, after all, to guidance issued on Wednesday — but the decision was made the week prior.
If they truly, honestly, believe that state or county guidance stands in the way of moving forward, or even making a plan, then the very minimal next step with respect to obligations to families and the community is to provide a heck of a lot more specific detail. Do parents need to cause a ruckus, have a socially-distance protest at the state or county level? Or would parents see that these concerns are overblown, not a true impediment, and that the district is using them as an excuse?
And, finally, their prior plan did pretty much rely on smaller student numbers in the building due to the open of entire or partial remote learning. Did they assume that more parents would choose that option than ended up being the case? (That would have been a credible reason for changing plans.) In any case, there are other solutions out there. Coming in for a half-day is better than none at all. Allowing “cohorts,” with students who voluntarily opt-in to reduced elective choices, could have been tried — though of course, this should have been thought about much sooner.
Again, it’s trust.
Do I trust that the school board is working hard to re-open?
(Parents in other regions might have the opposite problem — whether to trust that the school is taking all reasonable and appropriate measures to keep students and teachers safe.)