Before Chicago Public Schools reopened its high schools, it sent a survey around its parents to see which students would opt for in-person learning. Janet Tapia, a parent of a junior at Back of the Yards College Prep, selected yes for her 16-year-old daughter so that they could have the option to learn in-person — once families have chosen to learn remotely for the quarter, they cannot switch to in-person (although they can do so the other way around), so the choice was a final one.

“I was hoping she’d be vaccinated by now,” said Tapia, 36. “If CPS would’ve made [the vaccine] available a month ago, I think I would have sent her.” But Tapia’s daughter still isn’t vaccinated, so Tapia decided to keep her daughter home for the remainder of the school year.

Returning to in-person school was the subject of ongoing conflict between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union, both when elementary and middle schools returned to on-site learning in January, and more recently, shortly before the city’s public high schools went back on Monday. This most recent conflict over high schools reopening saw CTU asking for better mitigating assurances amidst concerns around a new variant of the virus and overcrowding at some schools, and a plan for teacher safety as well as resources for students. The requested resources included a vaccination plan for students aged 16 years and older, which CPS had previously not provided.

“Right now we have a crisis of vaccine access in our most vulnerable neighbourhoods,” said CTU Communications Director Chris Geovanis, before the two entities reached an agreement. Since then, in the deal that resolved the conflict between the two organizations, CPS has agreed to create a vaccination plan for students 16 years and older, and their families. CPS schools chief Janice Jackson and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot framed the reopening as “a critical milestone” and “a tremendous step forward for the academic and social-emotional well-being of our students.”

But with the amount of time it would take to implement the vaccination and the school year ending in just two months, some—including Tapia—feel that there is not much point to reopening given the risk.

“The timing just doesn’t make sense,” said Tapia, referring to the time needed to create and implement the vaccination plan and the two week interim between shots. It feels especially pointless, she added, because the last few weeks of school before summer are not usually the most intensive. This is not for lack of wanting to return: her daughters, one of whom is in elementary school and is learning at home, are much less excited about school and their grades are suffering. But Tapia’s main concerns are that those who will learn in-person will spread the virus, and that the students who are learning virtually will get the short end of the stick in CPS’s hybrid learning plan. “I don’t think it’s fair,” she said.

Professor Peggy Peebles, a veteran educator with 35 years of experience in pre-k to 12 education and 12 years in higher education, called reopening “a double-edged sword,” with clear benefits but side effects that need to be considered, particularly student safety. According to Peebles, the main point of returning might not be about information and knowledge given the short amount of time left in the year, but more about “skills and disposition” for students, and an opportunity for schools to consider “alternate calendar[s]” such as extending the school year, to try and supplement learning lost due to COVID.

According to Dr. Edith Davis, the amount of time left is also inconsequential when considering the benefits of in-person learning. Davis, who specializes in science education at Florida A&M University, said it is important to get students back into “an environment where their minds are focused on learning.” Systemic issues in education such as absenteeism, where students or teachers do not turn up to class, have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, said Davis, whose research has focused on developing a spiral curriculum based on the notion that learning is not linear and is a recurring process in which students constantly revisit topics.

“If you can plant the seed of the desire to want to learn,” she said, “then the learning goes beyond the classroom” and potentially into the summer, as well as fostering excitement for the next school year.

While city-wide numbers show that a larger percentage of high school students have chosen to return to school — 46 percent versus the 35 percent who chose to stay at home — a further 17 percent did not reply, meaning that over half the high school district, at 52 percent, will stay home for the remainder of the school year.

But these numbers also reveal racial disparities, revealing that only specific communities in Chicago will reap the benefits of in-person learning. Tapia’s choice to keep her daughter home not only reflects 74 percent of Back of the Yards College Prep parents who made the same choice, but also reflects how, city-wide, parents in predominantly Black and brown communities have chosen to keep their children home. Back of the Yards, as a predominantly Latinx neighborhood, reflects wider trends across the city in Black and brown communities: over half of Latinx learners—56 percent—and majority of Black students have also chosen to continue learning remotely. 

This is not the case in Chicago’s predominantly white neighbourhoods: demographic data from the CPS survey in neighbourhoods that are largely white, including communities on the North side such as Lincoln Park, over 70 percent of students have chosen to return to school. A North Side CPS parent of a vaccinated junior, who declined to be identified due to online backlash she received, said that she had advocated for schools to reopen with the view that “public schools should at least give families the choice” to send their children back. Her personal experience of a parent of a college-age child with depression and anxiety prompted her to think of other children with mental illness and to recognise “how difficult it would be for them to be stuck at home.”

But Professor Peebles said she thinks that parents shouldn’t have been put in this situation. “The choice shouldn’t have been given,” she said, adding that “it should be a statewide decision” that is reflected broadly across local schools. “It should be left in the hands of the educators to decide what’s in the best interest of students.” Creating a choice allows for the deepening of inequities such as those created by race and class, said Peebles, which can now be seen across the city.

Peebles sees this as a natural result of parents who are trying to make the best choices for their children — but this inevitably leads to deepening inequality. “Those kids on the North side are going to have an advantage on those kids who don’t come back,” she said.

According to CTU’s Geovanis, more needs to be done to encourage students from vulnerable neighbourhoods to return in the fall. Along with the vaccination plan, this includes providing mental health resources and better safety measures. Tapia said that when she was considering sending her child back to school, she was told that schools would have to buy their own plexiglass, which ultimately prompted her not to send her daughter back. “To me, the plexiglass is related directly to COVID, so I just don’t understand where the money is going,” she said.

CPS did not respond to multiple requests for comment about this distribution of resources, or about its plans to ensure students feel comfortable returning in the fall.

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