The Ongoing Saga of Safely Reopening Chicago’s Public Schools
As a Screenwriter, I Know How This Story Ends. There’s Still Time for a Hero’s Rewrite
Since the news dropped Friday that families would need to register for hybrid or at-home learning by August 7, we’ve all been scrambling to unpack what this means and how to navigate what frankly — feels less like a choice and more like an ultimatum to either back the district’s hybrid learning plan and commit to in-person learning this fall with many safety and equity questions unanswered, or sacrifice a critical component of our students’ education — the social, emotional, and academic — by agreeing to four days a week of self-directed, independent learning.
I’m a screenwriter, and I’ve been following this narrative as it’s been unfolding since the day schools closed back in March. I’m a CPS mom, and I’ve been living in this saga with my kids and CPS teacher husband. I’m the Executive Producer of We Still Teach, helping CTU provide educational resources for kids isolated across the digital divide. I’m a teacher myself, training teachers in a new area of professional development focused on engaging students in more robust remote learning. And I’m a parent rep on my local LSC.
I know all the characters in this story. And I can see where the plot’s taking us.
Let’s start by agreeing that the stakes for reopening schools this fall are incredibly high. Physically. Socially. Emotionally. This story is universal. It’s impacting families, schools, and communities around the world. And with these complex factors under consideration, it’s no surprise that many feel conflicted about our return to school this fall. There is no obvious best way to proceed here — with so many unknowns, the one thing we do know is that starting the school year remotely is the only one that mitigates risk by lowering the physical stakes of contributing to community spread, illness and death due to COVID. And because districts and governments have leveraged themselves so much in reopening plans — I’m not surprised we’re where we are today. On the edge of our seats. Waiting to see what’s next.
Let me be clear: we all want to return to in-person learning. We ALL want to return to in-person learning. Schools. Teachers. Families. Communities. We’re all grieving this loss of the personal connections we shared when buildings were open — the high fives, the inside jokes, overcoming challenges, daily victories, and the bigger milestones, too.
But the reality is, we aren’t ready for buildings to open again. Not yet.
When schools closed, our teachers adapted lessons for this new remote reality even as this crisis impacted their lives outside school as much as it did anyone else’s. This is not a question of teaching versus not teaching. This is about a safe school environment — one in which teachers can teach, and kids can learn. Without having to risk their health, and the health of their families.
We don’t have enough time, or resources in place, to equitably and safely prepare to welcome our kids and teachers back into their classrooms. We all wanted this so badly and it’s really hard — it’s devastating, it’s heartbreaking — to accept that we can’t make this happen as safely as we wanted to. And that means, we need to take a minute and really assess what’s at stake here.
What does CPS stand to lose if they proceed with a remote start to the year?
They have to admit that their hybrid plan isn’t as safe as they thought.
They have to give a win to the Chicago Teachers Union.
And here is all that CPS stands to gain:
They can live up to their equity plan promises and do some hard work number crunching to find a way to provide more access to devices, to WiFi, to the wraparound services they’ve been punting on for years. They can provide teachers with the tools needed to deliver a truly robust remote learning experience to students — not just one live session a week and four days of self-directed independent learning (IE the learn-at-home plan in the preliminary framework). They can do more work to figure out how to support families better than they did last Spring. And so can City Hall. They can be collaborative, educational innovators; they can legit commit to tearing down systems of oppression; and they can lead the charge into the future.
None of our leaders can afford to be red tape bureaucrats, hiding behind their politics, prioritizing the economic benefits for some over the health of many, especially those in more vulnerable communities.
They need to step up and do what it takes to be a hero.
If they open schools now — they get to pass the buck. Business as usual. They put the onus on parents and kids, teachers, and schools, to be safe.
If they commit to starting the year remotely, imperfect as that might be, they can do so knowing that they had the humility and courage to make a difficult choice, but one that nevertheless keeps all of their students, and all of their teachers and staff, and all of their families safe. They will do so knowing they are protecting the City of Chicago.
Here’s how we start our Hero’s Journey. This is our Call to Action.
1. WHAT HAPPENS NOW
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot greenlights a remote start to the year now, to maximize the effectiveness of any return to school plans. Currently, parents, teachers, schools, leaders are all expending enormous amounts of energy on multiple contingencies when we would be far more efficient coalescing around one, seeing as we are now only 5 weeks out from the start of the school year. We don’t know how safe hybrid learning will be until we actually try it, and testing it out now when cases are spiking and disproportionately so in Black and Latinx communities — is irresponsible. We do know that remote learning is physically safe and because we’ve already done this last Spring, we’re better prepared for a successful and robust start to the year in this modality. Our collective energy would be most efficiently spent on planning and organizing how to best leverage our community resources — the families, teachers, schools, and community stakeholders who all want to see CPS succeed — for more effective support in remote learning this fall.
2. THIS WEEK: WE GET ORGANIZED
Instead of forcing schools, teachers, and families to inefficiently plan for multiple contingencies, all of which might change, we can go straight to the physically most safe option and give everyone these next 5 weeks to prepare to address concerns around equity, and supporting the whole student. Families can finally confirm childcare. Childcare centers can staff and prepare to accept essential workers’ children and/or launch SCOLs [Safe Centers for Online Learning], accordingly. Caregivers can communicate with employers. Employers can prepare to support employees. Schools can connect with teachers and families to find out how they can provide the most relevant, effective, equitable support: additional training for teachers, families and students, ensure access to devices, WiFi, safe spaces to learn, and with the resources needed to do so.
3. NEXT 4 WEEKS: WE PLAN
There may be challenges in the unknown, but with 4+ weeks’ lead time, we’ll be better prepared to tackle them.
Last Spring, teachers pivoted overnight to crisis schooling.
With 4+ weeks’ lead time, TEACHERS can effectively prepare for a more robust remote learning experience for all children. They can re-imagine their lessons to create online content for async learning, extended projects, and live engagement. They can train on new and existing tech platforms to build confidence and enhance the UX.
With 4+ weeks’ lead time, SCHOOLS can support their teaching staffs and families on equitable access to remote learning. They can support teacher planning. Organize socially distant outdoor learning and socializing to stay safely, physically connected. They can organize equitable pods. SCOLs. Meals. Support services. Parent orientations.
With 4+ weeks’ lead time, FAMILIES can figure out employment, childcare, build safety nets, support networks, and wrap their heads around how best to support their kids — and themselves — at this time.
4. SEPT 8: DELIVER.
We’re ready to go.
No matter the outcome — remote, hybrid & at-home, in person learning — a storm is brewing and will make landfall when the school year begins. We’re seeing it everywhere schools have already opened. If we take the time now to batten down the hatches and prepare ourselves for a remote start to the year, we can buy ourselves the time, resources, and energy needed to efficiently, effectively, and successfully plan for a safer return to schools when we’re truly ready for it.
And if we’re all staying home for awhile… maybe we’ll give ourselves a shot at actually beating this thing, driving cases down just in time for vaccines and treatments to reach those most critically in need.
Maybe we’ll all be the heroes that save the world.
For more information on developing robust remote learning programs for teachers, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. CPS Teachers can sign up for We Still Teach | Training For More Robust Learning now — This course runs 3 weeks August 10–28. https://ctuf.catalog.instructure.com/courses/we-still-teach-robust-remote-learning