CPS Rift Continues Over In-Person Learning

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Norma Noriega isn’t convinced that returning to in-person learning is not worth the risk as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise.

Chicago Public Schools students are scheduled to return to in-person learning at the end of the month. But Norma Noriega said some Black and Brown kids won’t return despite a requirement for most students to learn at school five days a week this year.

For some parents, the risk of sending their children to school won’t be worth taking as COVID-19 cases are on the rise in the city, said Noriega, who teaches sixth grade math at Stevenson Elementary School in the Scottsdale neighborhood..  The virus also continues to disproportionately affect communities of color.

“Brown and Black children already come into this world endangered to some extent, so there are going to be parents who aren’t going to risk their children’s lives,” she said. “They’re not going to risk the lives of the other children in their household. How is (CPS) going to ask them to make a decision like that?”

CPS is offering a remote learning academy to some students with medical needs verified by a healthcare provider, according to CPS. CPS did not respond to requests about how many students will be part of that academy by press time.

Whether students will return to school is one of many concerns some teachers  have about what the return will look like.

Mike Smith, who teaches at Englewood STEM High School in Englewood, said he is ready to return to in-person instruction but hopes classrooms are cleaned frequently. He’s also afraid he’s “going to go back into an empty building with no kids.

“And that’s concerning because if they’re not in school, where are they?” Smith asked. “What are they doing? With all of the things my students deal with on a daily basis then you throw COVID in there, it just makes things worse.”

In-person instruction isn’t a good idea right now, according to Calia Brooks, who will spend her first year as a teacher at Parker Community Academy in Englewood. That’s due to the arrival of a more contagious strain of the virus, she said. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the delta variant is not only more contagious but may cause more severe illness than previous strains in unvaccinated people.

“I do know they are requiring teachers to be vaccinated but even so, there’s always news about people still catching it or transmitting it and that is a worry because beside from my students, I do have a family that has older members and very sickly members that I’ll be going around,” she said. “I just don’t want to put them at risk.”

Ray Salazar noted CPS took a step in the right direction by mandating vaccines for teachers, he said he worries about unvaccinated students.

“At the high school level, there needs to be a push to get students vaccinated,” said Salazar, an English and journalism teacher at John Hancock College Prep High School in West Elsdon. “And I think the only students who should be tested (for the virus) are the ones showing symptoms or the ones not vaccinated because those are the ones posing a risk to the community.”

Some teachers said they still have unanswered questions regarding COVID-19 protocols and safety. “(What are) the protocols for if a teacher or a student ends up with COVID? What does that mean for teaching?” Smith asked. “Are we going to go back to hybrid or remote learning?”

Salazar has similar questions. “What’s going to happen if a student has to be quarantined and they’re out of school for a couple of weeks,” he asked. “What does that mean for me as a teacher and what do I need to do? I don’t know the answer to that.Same thing for the staff side. If a staff member gets sick and we have to quarantine, what does that mean? Do we have to use up all our sick days?” he added.

The lack of answers to questions like these are tied to an ongoing debate between the Chicago Teachers Union and CPS, according to Smith and Noriega. Both parties have disagreed on social distancing guidelines, how often students and staff should be tested and the district’s staffing needs.

There’s also been conflict over which students should be quarantined when a COVID-19 case is confirmed. CTU, which represents more than 25,000 teachers, has proposed that CPS pause in-person instruction for all students in a classroom if there is a confirmed case, regardless of vaccination status. The pause would last for 14 days and students would shift to remote learning during that period. Additional staff and students would be quarantined as determined by contact tracing.

CPS wants to limit quarantining to unvaccinated individuals who came in contact with an infected student or staff member, according to its proposal. Vaccinated students who are asymptomatic would be able to continue learning in person instead of having to quarantine.

CPS and CTU are on opposite sides regarding whether the entire school district should ever shift to remote learning. The union has said it wants to pause in-person learning for two weeks and transition to fully remote instruction based on three criteria: if the city’s COVID-19 test positivity rate increase for seven consecutive days; if the rate of each day is at least 15% higher than the rate one week before; and if the rate on the seventh day is 10% or greater. Meanwhile, CPS has said students should continue with in-person learning five days a week.

Questions still remain about whether an agreement will be reached by the time the school year begins. That just means more confusion for teachers, Smith said. “Not only do teachers not know exactly what’s going on but the parents don’t, administrators don’t and “Not only do teachers not know exactly what’s going on but the parents don’t, administrators don’t and I’m pretty sure the public is just as confused,” Smith said.