‘Very strange and unsettling’: Chicago families weary of reopening uncertainty

Elizabeth Preston, a seventh grader on Chicago’s South Side, isn’t sure if she will return to her math classroom next week after struggling to keep up with the subject virtually.

Across the city, Angela Foster-Rice, whose fifth grade daughter will keep learning from home, doesn’t know yet who her child’s teacher will be or what her schedule will look like next week. And Kate Myers doesn’t know if her son, who recently returned to a special education classroom, will have classes past Wednesday — or lean on the workbooks she scrambled to order in case the city’s teachers go on strike for the second time in two years. 

As Chicago Public Schools’ reopening plan hinges on a ticking time clock of negotiations, parents and families say they feel dragged along in the drama with the teachers union — consulted infrequently or not all. Regardless of their reopening stance, many are trying desperately to find their bearings in a month that is bringing schedule changes, classroom reassignments, confusing messaging, and upset children.

 “We are trying to take it one day at a time,” said Foster-Rice. “It’s very strange and really unsettling right now.”

 Some parents support the union’s push to delay reopening until teachers are vaccinated or work accommodations are granted for every educator who wants one. Others, like Preston’s parents and a group of physician parents who wrote city letters, are part of an increasingly vocal contingent urging the district to reopen classrooms as planned. Some are caught in the middle, privately lamenting the instability but publicly staying mum at the risk of getting shamed on social media or causing friction with their teachers or principals. 

In December, 37% of district students indicated that they would return to the classroom in early 2021. Based on a lower than expected turnout for prekindergarten and cluster students earlier this month — only 60% of those expected showed up — that portion could be smaller.

Preston, who is 12, said she isn’t sure now when she’ll go back to school, and she’s worried.

The seventh grade year is a critical one for Chicago students who want to attend the city’s selective high schools, and math presents her the most challenges. 

“I feel like I am missing out,” she said this week outside a small reopening rally in Englewood, her eyes cast downward and the hood of her coat pulled tight against the blustery cold. “It’s hard to do e-learning. There are too many distractions.”

Among those distractions are five other siblings. Of the six Preston children, only one — a pre-kindergartner — is back at school. That’s why Elizabeth’s parents, Willie and Brittany Preston, joined a small group of Chicago parents on Monday calling for the city’s teachers union to stand down its threat of a strike and work alongside officials to reopen schools. 

In Chicago, slightly more than a fifth of the students who have opted for in-person learning are white — a disproportionate number in a district that’s overwhelmingly Latino and Black. But the parents who protested Monday in Englewood were largely Black.

Union officials told teachers Monday night to prepare for the possibility of not reporting to campuses on Wednesday. If the district retaliates and locks them out of remote learning, they warned picket lines could be forthcoming. 

Kate Myers so far has been shielding her son, who is on the autism spectrum, from the possibility that he might not have in-person classes at Lane Tech later this week. Earlier this month, he rejoiced at reuniting with teachers and classmates in his cluster program, she said. She, too, was relieved: Extended time in front of a screen had caused seizures, and he found it hard to focus. 

But that’s now at risk, if an agreement is not reached and the union makes good on a threat to call its members to all work remotely. Such a move could also delay the second phase of the district’s reopening on Monday, when 70,000 students in kindergarten to eighth grade are expected to return to buildings. 

Myers said she supported the two previous teacher strikes in the city, joining the picket lines with coffee and refreshments for educators. But she is angry about the pushback to the district’s reopening plan, and deeply unsettled by the uncertainty of the moment. 

“I feel there are solutions, but CPS and CTU aren’t looking at them,” said Myers. “The clock is ticking for my son. It’s urgent for him to have every possible day in the building with experts who can get him to the next level of his development.” 

Katrina Adams, a parent of a fourth-grader, said she hasn’t received enough information from the district to make informed decisions in time. She told the district in December that her children would be remote, largely because she wanted to see how reopening went at their school.

Now, hearing from her child’s principal at Burnside Academy that the school has face masks, sanitizer and a detailed safety protocol, she wishes she had that information when she made her choice. 

“I really don’t think that is fair, because they didn’t roll out the details” in December, when parents were last surveyed, she said. 

As a former teacher, Adams said she takes seriously the concerns of educators who say their schools don’t have adequate safety protocols. “They know the health situation better than me, who is on the outside looking in.” 

Even parents who feel resolute in their decisions describe little peace in this moment, as flux in family choices and teachers seeking accommodations has prompted classroom shuffling mid-year at some campuses. 

Foster-Rice, the parents of a fifth grader at Waters Elementary, still does not know who her daughter’s teachers will be or what her schedule will look like, if the district proceeds with reopening schools for all elementary students next week. The family decided to stick with virtual learning because they felt the safety of students and teachers is paramount — and the district had not fully reassured them it can ensure it. 

Remote learning was going smoothly — but there are changes and unpredictability ahead. A large number of teachers at Waters asked for accommodations to work from home, and the school is still scrambling to work out schedules and teacher assignments. She worries some educators denied accommodations will go on unpaid leave. 

“It’s a complete crapshoot right now; it’s complete uncertainty,” she said. 

What Foster-Rice knows is that her daughter will likely receive instruction from an educator who is also working with in-person learners, and she worries how that might affect her child’s experience.

“These teachers will have a lot on their plate,” she said. “They will be stressed beyond their limits.”

Speaking at the Englewood rally Monday, Natasha Dunn, a parent organizer, said the events of the past few weeks had her fed up with both Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union. 

“If CPS and CTU can’t get it together, they need to give us our tax money back,” she said, adding that nearly three-quarters of Illinois school districts are now offering students the option of returning to some in-person instruction. 

Yana Kunichoff contributed to this report.

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