Caught in the storm

To close school or tough out brutally cold weather? Chicago faces a hard decision.

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago

Sylvie Smith and her younger sister marched briskly through the unplowed sheet of snow that blanketed the grounds of Bernhard Moos Elementary School in Humboldt Park on Monday and impatiently pushed the intercom button. Smith’s sister, a student at Moos, stood behind Smith as they waited for the door to open.

“The car broke down today,” Smith said. The two sisters took a rideshare to Moos, more than 10 miles from their Rogers Park neighborhood, to make it to school. “She’s an hour and a half late so hopefully she’s not in trouble. And I have to go to work after this.”

The Smith sisters were among the beleaguered residents battling the morning commute after seven inches of snow blanketed Chicago from Sunday evening through early Monday.

At a school in an unplowed residential neighborhood in Rogers Park, a principal and a parent volunteer helped push a family’s stuck SUV that was blocking a line of cars dropping off late students. All around the city, buses arrived late, educators parked awkwardly in snowy lots behind schools, and families battled snowdrifts and unplowed roads to deliver their children and get to work.

During brutal weather weeks, Chicago schools face a quandary: call off classes and force the majority low-income population they serve to scramble for child care, or tough it out amid snow and ice, frigid temperatures, and poor driving conditions that jeopardize safety of educators and families.

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat Chicago
The chilly morning scene outside Moos Elementary in Humboldt Park.

Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson acknowledged the tightrope on Monday at a press conference about the city’s emergency preparedness. “While cancellations can be disruptive, we will not hesitate to cancel classes if we think we are unable to safely receive students,” she said.

To complicate matters, the district’s budget crisis years ago led it to privatize janitorial contracts, so schools that used to have full-time engineers and custodians to sprinkle salt and shovel sidewalks now rely on part-time and contract support. On Monday, some schools were stuck waiting on private contractors who didn’t show up before the bell rang.

At Finkl Elementary in Little Village, a teacher said that as of noon, no one had come to plow the school parking lot.

Outside a Humboldt Park school, a snow remover who preferred not to give his name yelled over the whir of his machine, “We need more help.”

Those contractors work through Aramark, SodexoMagic, and other private firms that, since 2014, have received more than $400 million in contracts from Chicago schools. In addition to tasks like cleaning schools and eradicating rodents, they are charged with landscaping and snow removal.

A Chicago schools spokeswoman told Chalkbeat that she was waiting on updated reports from facilities staff, but that no weather-related problems, such as uncleared snow, had yet been reported to the central office.

But Christine Geovanis, a spokeswoman from the Chicago Teachers Union, said by email that the group had received reports of “lack of plowing on CPS property, shoveling issues where people can’t get from their cars to the building and sidewalks not being cleaned up.”

She added, “We know that schools have had problems with inadequate temperatures. With deficient investment in facilities management, those problems could intensify this week.”

More bad weather to come

Monday is just the start of what promises to be a frigid, and difficult to predict, week. For some, the concern was not snow, but the uncertainty of whether schools would stay open or close later in the week.

“Today the weather is unpleasant but I’m wondering if classes will be cancelled tomorrow or the day after tomorrow,” said Gabriela De La Rosa, whose daughter is a fourth grader at Moos.

The district emailed parents about 9:30 p.m. Sunday that schools would be open Monday. The email, in English and Spanish, said the district would closely monitor weather reports. A wind chill warning was issued for Tuesday night through Thursday morning, plus temperatures are predicted to drop to 20 degrees below zero Wednesday.  

In the email, the school district promised alert educators and families by Tuesday afternoon if it would call off school midweek.

At least two of the charter networks, CICS and Noble, said they follow CPS’ policy for closing schools in bad weather.

Marsha Bradley usually takes her grandchild to pre-K classes at Goethe Elementary School in Logan Square. She hadn’t heard yet from the school about whether classes would be cancelled. But if they were, she said, “I’m the grandmother, so you’re looking at child care.”

A parent at Lincoln Park Elementary School, Emily Gray Tedrowe, faced another tough decision: whether to cancel Lincoln Park’s book fair that was scheduled to start mid-week.

“It’s super important to us,” said Tedrowe, because the book fair supports the school library — another critical resource that has been hit by budget cuts at many Chicago schools. “Honestly, it doesn’t make sense to do all the work of setting it up in our gym and to have a poorly attended fair, since it is one of our big PTA fundraisers.”

By mid-morning, Tedrowe had contacted the book fair company — Anderson’s, which is based in Aurora — and decided to postpone the fair.

Here’s what others are saying about Chicago’s snow-day decision-making:

School safety

School security could get $30 million boost in Tennessee under governor’s proposal

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Gov. Bill Lee announced Thursday a $30 million school security initiative that would prioritize hiring more officers to keep students and teachers safer in Tennessee.

He’s especially concerned about more than 500 schools that currently do not have school resource officers, known as SROs.

“The safety of our children and teachers is a top priority for my administration, and this investment ensures that school districts will have the resources they need to better protect our schools,” Lee said in a statement.

The Republican governor wants to adjust the state’s school security grant program to help districts that are more financially needy. His proposal also would let schools that currently have SROs pursue grants to pay for other security needs such as building improvements and violence prevention programs.

The proposal would build on $10 million in recurring funding and $25 million in one-time funding that the legislature allocated last year to beef up school security in what then-Gov. Bill Haslam said was just a start. Haslam also ordered the first-ever comprehensive security assessment of every public school in Tennessee, which was completed last summer.

Lee proposes an additional $20 million in one-time funding and extra $10 million in recurring funding. If the legislature approves, the state’s total recurring investment would rise to $20 million and this year’s total package would be $40 million.

The heightened attention to school safety was sparked a year ago by the tragic shooting deaths of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, by a 19-year-old former student who had been expelled for disciplinary reasons.

Lee is not proposing additional money for school-based mental health needs, but urged local districts to explore ways to improve those kinds of services.

“While we are providing resources for additional security measures for our schools, districts need to also consider programming that identifies students who are in need of intervention,” he said. “Security is paramount, but we must also double down on efforts to identify harmful situations before they arise.”

The governor will unveil his proposed spending plan on March 4 when he also delivers his first State of the State address.

School resource officers have been used in Tennessee since 1993, with almost a thousand SROs now covering half of the state’s school buildings. According to the Tennessee School Resource Officer Association, elementary schools are the campuses that are most often without on-site police.

Here are five things to know about school resource officers in Tennessee

The state departments of education and safety and homeland security will work jointly to oversee programming and grant funds under Lee’s school safety proposal.

The initiative was the governor’s third on education since he took office in mid-January. He previously unveiled a $30 million proposal to expand career and technical education in Tennessee high schools and a $4 million plan to beef up STEM course offerings in science, engineering, technology, and math.

Correction: Feb. 21, 2019: This story has been updated with new numbers provided by the Lee administration showing $30 million in proposed new dollars and $10 million in recurring money from a fund started last year by the Haslam administration. A previous version of this story reported a $40 million boost under Lee’s initiative.

First Person

We’ve watched as schools have responded to the Parkland shooting with more police. What we actually need: counselors and teachers of color

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students from the Grace Dodge campus in the Bronx walked out of class on March 14 to call for more investment in mental health support and counselors.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a year ago today, in which 17 students and staff members were killed, put gun violence front and center in the national conversation. It’s been a year since this horrific tragedy, and we must continue to put the focus on ways to truly make schools safer.

What happened in the aftermath of Parkland was incredible. Students, some of them our age, who had been silent became active, and those who have been speaking about gun violence for years got even louder. Marjory Stoneman Douglas students used their time in the spotlight to garner worldwide media attention, and youth across the country organized walkouts, including in New York.

We have so much love and respect for what the Parkland students did in the midst of tragedy. They helped, as models and through their actions, build the foundation for future generations fighting for social justice. But while their success is undeniable, we must also acknowledge the countless students of color who have advocated for the end of gun violence for years but have never attracted the same attention and who sometimes see school safety through a different lens.

These students, in organizations like LIFE Camp in Queens, and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, have been on the ground in black and brown communities long before the Parkland tragedy. The two of us — one a student of color, Alliyah, who has experienced some of the effects of gun violence, and one of us, Abe, who is white and has mostly escaped such experiences — stand together to elevate these voices.

The voices of students of color are too often ignored, forgotten, or silenced. Many communities of color know the consequences of gun violence all too well, and students there have had to reckon with the threat of gun violence too early in young lives. They go to schools that are already over-policed and wait in long lines every morning to go through metal detectors that do not make them feel safe. Yet these students’ stories have often been left out of the national debates about gun violence; that must change.

In the Bronx, where Alliyah went to middle school, the threat of gun violence was often present. In middle school, there were frequent loudspeaker announcements telling students that a peer had been injured or killed at the hands of a gun. Each notice left families and friends reeling, but their suffering didn’t attract much media attention. And the response to school shootings has often been to insist on more police, more security measures in and around schools that often don’t make students of color feel safer.

They can be hassled by police to and from school and wait in those long metal-detector lines to enter school. Students can be subject to random searches by the New York Police Department at school, as described by a recent student at a Black Lives Matter at School rally. Black students are more likely than whites to receive harsher punishments for the same categories of misbehavior in school. Taken together, over-policing in and around schools can lower test scores and become a reason to avoid school for some students of color, as a new study has found.

That’s why we believe the answer to school violence isn’t more police, more metal detectors, or teachers carrying guns. We were heartened to see New York state legislators supporting a bill to prevent teachers from carrying guns in schools. This is a start. But too many other states are responding to the tragedy at Parkland by arming teachers, which doesn’t make students of color feel more secure. It is extremely important that all students, no matter their race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation, feel protected in schools. But this can only happen if students of color have a voice in how we respond to gun violence.

So what do students of color need? More adults of color whom students can turn to when they have problems; more counselors who can talk to us about issues we’re having before violence happens and when something traumatic does take place. Sometimes it’s a teacher’s positivity that creates a nurturing school environment. Alliyah, for example, attends a public high school where most of the students and teachers are white. But there are two black female teachers, and they constantly cheer her and each other on with positive comments, complimenting each other on how great natural hair looks and how proud they are of each other. This positive energy should be present for every student of color in every school.

Most of all, students of color don’t want to be viewed with constant suspicion and fear, becoming the targets of more — or more aggressive — policing in and out of school. We talk a lot about physical safety in schools but not enough about psychological, emotional, and cultural safety.

Students of color need to be able to walk into school every day knowing that they will be secure. This means that teachers should not be armed, that students should not be walking through metal detectors, that more teachers should look like their students of color, and that administrators have adequate funding for more school counselors.

Fourteen students died a year ago in Parkland. But since then 1,200 more children have lost their lives to gun violence. We must continue this fight to get that number to zero. Lives are literally on the line.

Alliyah Logan is a student in the Teen Activist Project at the New York Civil Liberties Union and Youth Over Guns. Abe Rothstein is a student in the Teen Activist Project at the New York Civil Liberties Union.