Christmas break is over and it’s time to go back to school.
But not in the nation’s third-largest school district, because the Chicago Teachers Union late Tuesday voted not to conduct in-person classes.
The problem is COVID, they said.
CTU members decided by a vote of 73 percent to stay out of the classroom and to teach remotely, according to The Chicago Tribune.
For months, teachers and the Chicago Public Schools have been negotiating metrics to determine when to switch to remote learning; the situation has been aggravated by a recent spike in COVID cases.
The district wants suspension of in-class activities if 40 percent of teachers of a specific school are out sick for at least two days or if there is a 30 percent districtwide absence rate, the Tribune said.
The union wants classrooms closed and remote instruction launched if a school has a 20 percent infection rate and, among other things, they want the district to distribute KF94, KN95 or N95 masks to all faculty, staff and students.
Pedro Martinez, CEO of CPS, disagrees with union concerns.
“Our schools are safe,” he said in a Tuesday news conference. “When you look at cases – and I’ve looked at this very carefully, especially as we ended the break — cases were always at a fraction of the community.
“We rarely saw any significant — any instances — of any major transmission,” he said, noting that the district was responding to the data, as applied to both delta and omicron variants.
Any report of lack of safety in Chicago schools was “misinformation,” Martinez said.
It was intriguing to see Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot reflecting statesmanship at the news conference as she chided union leadership for not allowing their members to personally meet with Martinez.
“It feels like ‘Groundhog Day,'” Lightfoot said, as she expressed concern about ongoing problems with the union.
“After everything that we’ve gone through over the last two years with the CTU leadership, unfortunately tonight CT leadership is compelling its membership to make a decision that will harm hundreds of thousands of Chicago families who rely on CPS for their daily needs — for their education and their nutrition, for their safety.
“That’s real harm,” the mayor said.
Martinez did say that despite school closures, nutrition programs and COVID testing and vaccinations would continue.
Lightfoot said scattered problems with COVID could be handled at the local school level.
“Rather than making a sweeping move to end in-person learning for the entire
district … let me remind you about what the consequences of moving an entire urban district to remote learning are.”
Under remote learning, she said, the elementary school testing and learning failure rate in Chicago schools tripled. “And that fell most disproportionately on black and brown and poor kids across our district.
“Triple failure rates — More than a hundred thousand students were disconnected and disengaged,” according to the mayor, who credited school district officials with working to bring kids back into the system.
“Why on earth would anyone think it’s a good idea to reverse that progress and harm our students again?
“We simply cannot ignore that sad history of what happens when we go fully remote — Having access to high-quality in-person learning has to be an essential imperative in turning the tide of the crisis that we know will follow if we send a whole district back to remote learning.”
Lightfoot said thousands of students never logged in to the remote learning and she expressed concern over “worsening of the achievement gap.”
“There is no basis in the data, the science or common sense for us to shut an entire system down when we can surgically do this at a school level where needed.”
Setting the Chicago teachers aside, what is sobering to think about is what may be permanent damage done to children’s education throughout the nation — indeed, the world — as a result of COVID lockdowns, masking and general disruptions.
Teachers often are concerned about decaying of student mastery of material over summer vacations; how much more is learning compromised when required routines get canceled as they have in the pandemic?
It’s possible there may be a two-year learning gap at all levels of education. Some students may never fully recover.
As one who was an early adopter of online university education in 2000, it’s difficult for me to imagine the efforts required to keep grade school or even high school students focused and motivated in remote teaching environments, especially as they are isolated from friends and normal activities.
Indeed, I’ve seen adult university faculty members get distracted and begin chatting with one another in an online training course.
And, knowing the amount of work it takes to develop an effective online class, I was sympathetic nearly two years ago when COVID forced primary and secondary teachers to switch to remote teaching at a moment’s notice, especially given the learning curve to master the techniques.
Whether from genuine concerns about COVID — perhaps from that misinformation Martinez referred to — or for reasons less than stellar — Chicago teachers have taken a stand harmful to students, or what Martinez has referred to as “our families.”
Never a fan of public schools, I can still say that it’s sad. The students of Chicago will lose more school days that they cannot get back.
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