Almost a year ago, the world changed. On March 10, 2020, the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 was a pandemic. Afterward, industries had to shift to online work, which posed many challenges, from in-home distractions to internet issues. Given these challenges, many sectors had to change the way they conduct business. One of these was education.
During the pandemic, the phrase “remote learning” has been added to our lexicon. This phrase describes learning from the comfort of one’s home. In this new learning environment, the aforementioned challenges were brought to the forefront, as well as others. One major concern for remote learning was accommodating diverse learners. With in-person instruction, there are supports in place to help diverse learners, but these are largely limited in a remote setting. “For many special education families, online learning is simply not working, and some parents say their children are regressing,” wrote Seattle Times.
Policymakers must take decisive steps to prevent the learning gap widening and damaging further the lives of children who are already at a significant disadvantage compared with their peers.
Moreover, there seems to be a digital divide when it comes to accessing online classes. According to the Brookings Institution, “Around 1 in 10 of the poorest children in the U.S. has little or no access to technology.” This access gap disproportionately affects Black households, the outlet further states, nothing that “Policymakers must take decisive steps to prevent the learning gap widening and damaging further the lives of children who are already at a significant disadvantage compared with their peers.”
Support for diverse learners and access to internet are but two of the challenges with remote learning. A third challenge is the home environment in which some students live. The Washington Post said that “no group reports [child abuse] more than educators.” With schools closed and children stuck at home, reports of verbal and sexual abuse could go underreported.
Given these challenges with remote learning, politicians are advocating for schools to re-open. President Joe Biden also joined in these calls. President Biden said, “My team will work to see that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days,” Education Week noted. Additionally, the Center for Disease Control declared that it was safe to reopen schools. After backlash, the CDC’s director defended their reopening guidelines. When it comes to reopening, there are mixed opinions.
For Sherry Tilman, an educator of 26 years, she said her district has supported a safe return to in-person learning. “I feel extremely safe. My school has provided us with more than enough PPE and high-grade disinfectant. My school also is very clean, and the custodians are constantly wiping and cleaning,” she wrote in an email.
Tilman teaches in the Gwinnett County Public School district in Georgia. Teachers in other districts have expressed different sentiments.
For Chicago Public Schools teachers like Angela Ross*, there is a lack of trust regarding reopening. Ross had been an educator for 14 years prior to the pandemic and wrote, “My level of trust for CPS having the environment clean at 100% is extremely low. The buildings weren’t clean prior to the pandemic.”
Regarding support from her district, Ross wrote, “The support that my school [should] have displayed include flexibility, providing trainings for different ways to use strategies that would allow our scholars to effectively learn, and last but not least a space for educators to check in our mental state once a month. A space where we can share and problem solve this new way of teaching.” Ross was not the only CPS teacher skeptical of the district’s reopening plan. Jeff Solin, an educator of 19 years, said, “I don’t see the need to rush by weeks…to rush to get back into the classroom and put people’s health at risk.” Solin is a member of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, who recently challenged the city on its reopening plans. After a months-long battle, the CTU and CPS reached an agreement on February 10, 2021.
Some of the pushback from CTU came from the stories that their members were hearing from students. For Solin, one student lost two immediate family members to COVID in a matter of two weeks. These stories are compounded with stories about denied accommodations. Although CPS boasted about giving 5,000 accommodations to teachers, Solin said that, “There’s a teacher with a spouse that has stage 4 cancer, and they were denied an accommodation.” In his interview, Solin shared a few “frustrating” parts of CPS’s reopening plan.
I have multiple students with covid right now, and one student who lost TWO immediate family members to covid in the past 2 weeks with a third testing positive. No dammit, I don’t think forcing everyone back into schools right now is safe. Wait and vaccinate. This is ridiculous.
For one, parents were offered two options: choose in person learning with the possibility to switch to remote at any time or to choose remote learning and not be able to switch until the start of a new quarter. “A parent gambling on this would logically choose the option that they can back out of,” he noted. CPS used this metric to collect data on how many parents were willing to return to in person learning, and Solin stated, “That is a really bad way to collect data.” He went on to note that CPS has a history of using bad data to persuade public opinion, referencing the data used to justify the 2013 mass school closing.
Most clamoring for reopening don’t know CPS like educators, or Black and Brown parents, or many SPED parents do. The mayor included. Mass school closings, filthy buildings, multiple scandals, budget cuts, inequities, mismanagement, layoffs, strikes, etc. It’s a long list.
Like Ross, Solin expressed skepticism about returning to the classroom. While Solin is a high school teacher, and high school teachers are not being asked to return to the classroom at this time, he wanted to show solidarity with fellow union members who are being asked to go back, he said.
As school districts move to reopen schools, some teachers trust their district. However, others are justifiably skeptical, given the lack of access to testing for Chicago’s Black communities who make up 35.8 percent of the CPS school district, according to data published by CPS. Moreover, majority of the families who opt for in-person learning are White, a WBEZ report revealed. These things true, one question is still on the table: is it safe to go back? ~ℝ
*Subject has been granted anonymity on the basis that CPS said they would take action against teachers who chose not to return to the classroom.