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With the spread of omicron exacerbating staffing shortages, returning to school after winter break has been a significant struggle in many parts of the country. The overwhelming number of districts are back in person, but some have gone virtual for a few weeks. And, as Stephanie Sy reports, the biggest battle over whether to return to in-person learning has been playing out in Chicago.
With the spread of Omicron exacerbating staffing shortages, returning to school after winter break has been a significant struggle in many parts of the country.
The overwhelming number of school districts are back in person, but some have gone virtual for a few weeks.
And, as Stephanie Sy tells us, the biggest battle over whether to return to in person learning has been playing out in Chicago.
Judy, students are expected to return to in person classes in Chicago tomorrow after nearly a week of canceled classes.
The breakdown started last week when the Chicago Teachers Union, or CTU, said teachers would not return in person without better COVID testing and stronger safety protections for staff and students.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago public school district said remote teaching was not an option. Teachers were locked out from virtual accounts and were not paid.
Parents have been extremely frustrated with both sides.
Lauren Lehmann, Parent:
My name is Lauren Lehmann. My son's name is Bryson Mosley (ph). He is 6 years old, and is in first grade at New Field Elementary.
Ally Ward, Parent:
My name is Ally Ward. This is my husband, Marcus Ward. We live on the North Side of Chicago, and we have twin boys who are in the fourth grade in CPS.
Joseph Williams, Parent:
My name is Joseph Williams. I am a proud father of five children who attend the Chicago Public Schools, and I reside in the Englewood community.
Last week was very frustrating. As a parent, we had to watch the news to find out if there was going to be school or not. And to have to base a family decision looking at the news at night to see what's going to happen, I don't think that's fair to families at all.
With Bryson having his ADHD and anxiety, it is much better for him to be in a structured learning environment. It was, for both of us, kind of a constant stop-start all day Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. And by the end of the week, we were both mentally and emotionally drained.
Marcus Ward, Parent:
They're thinking, like, oh, are we flashing back to where we were when we went on break for — we went on spring break and never went back to school? Is this what's going on again?
As parents, we have to adjust to every known variable that's going to happen. So why doesn't CPS have to do that as well?
I think it's a poor example for parents and for students who are living through this, certainly, and I think it's hard to know how to explain to your kid what's going on.
Parents' voice was not there, and I feel like we should be at the forefront of these issues. And there is no reason why parents aren't at the table. We have folks that are making decisions about our children without us being present.
I don't know how they expect kids to just bounce back mentally, emotionally, academically from a loss of roughly now four days' worth of education. It's really hard for them, and we're losing sight of that with the constant bickering and back-and-forth and passing the buck in between CPS and CTU. Enough is enough.
My nephew is in L.A. They told the parents about how school would look coming into the new year before they left for Christmas break: If we need to go remote, this is what it will look like. If we need to go hybrid, this is what it will look like.
And it seems like, with our situation, is that we are kind of just — we're chasing after answers.
We have gone through this now for almost two years, and you didn't think to already have these type of measures in place?
Other folks around the world is looking at CPS for guidance, and we can't even do it. We're literally creating things day by day, and these are folks' lives at hand.
I did not think, as the nation's, like, third largest school district, that we would be going through this much. I would not have anticipated this, as a parent initially coming into the school district.
So, this is — it's a bit alarming for me, and it kind of makes me question how much longer I really do want to keep him in an environment like this, where we could be consistently going back and forth.
The agreement that allows students to return to school tomorrow also sets new guidelines for when they might go back to remote learning.
But the mood remains acrimonious between the mayor and the teachers. Here's some of what Mayor Lightfoot and the union's vice president, Stacy Davis Gates, had to say last night.
Lori Lightfoot, Mayor of Chicago, Illinois: Some will ask, who won and who lost?
No one wins when our students are out of the place where they can learn the best and where they're safest. There does come a time when enough is enough. Three work stoppages in three years, of course people are frustrated. Why couldn't — why wouldn't they be?
But I'm hopeful that this is the end, at least for this school year.
Stacy Davis Gates, Vice President, Chicago Teachers Union:
You have more testing because the mayor was shamed into taking the testing from the governor, who, by the way, offered it months ago.
This mayor is unfit to lead this city, and she is on a one-woman kamikaze mission to destroy our public schools. She has not taken good care over the safety of the workers and the students that attend it.
And another twist, this afternoon, Mayor Lightfoot announced she tested positive for COVID. She says she is working from home while experiencing cold-like symptoms.
For more on all of this, I'm joined by Brandis Friedman of "Chicago Tonight" on WTTW Chicago.
Brandis Friedman, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour" on this busy day for you.
Did anyone benefit from this five-day work stoppage in the end? Did the agreement reached lead to concrete safety measures that we will see implemented tomorrow, when students go back?
Brandis Friedman, WTTW Chicago:
I think the teachers union will say, to some degree, that they were to able to move the ball in getting a little bit closer to some of what they wanted.
They felt like the testing was insufficient in Chicago Public Schools. And so they will say that, since they have finally gotten the district to agree to at least 10 percent of all students in all schools being tested, that that is something.
It is not what they fully wanted. And so the union is taking a bit of criticism from some of its members, who don't think this is the best deal that they could have gotten, especially since they were out of school, off of work, not getting paid for five — for five days.
So I think, with regard to testing, they think they have made some progress. There are some metrics for a school-by-school return to remote learning when it's necessary, which the district — the union — excuse me — asked for. The mayor did hold firm on her position that there would be no metric for a district-wide closure of schools and return to remote learning.
So it seems like everybody — there were some compromises made on each side.
Brandis, you said there was some agreement that a positivity rate could trigger a return to virtual learning school by school.
So does that mean that students and parents could still face more school closures?
If those schools are reaching the metrics, yes, then those schools could experience a return to remote learning.
I think the metric is about 40 percent of students in isolation or quarantine, and 30 percent of teachers who are out of school — or in isolation, I should say, and/or if 25 percent of teachers are absent after bringing in substitute teachers. Then, yes, some schools might experience it.
And I'm wondering if it's going to be in the communities that have already experienced a lot of disruption because of their high case rates in those communities.
And some of those same communities may have also experienced the brunt of the learning loss. How is that being addressed by the district.
That has yet to be seen.
I think a lot of studies and reports have come out as of late showing that students have definitely fallen behind. And no surprise. Remote learning is hard. And the teachers union has said remote learning is subpar to in person learning, but in person learning can be dangerous if the proper mitigation strategies are not in place.
And the argument that the district says we have done X, Y and Z to make it safer, teachers are saying, that is not the lived experience, the reality on the ground that we are experiencing.
The other thing here is the number of days that have been missed, those five days, it is up to the district now to decide whether or not those days will be somehow made up somewhere else in the school year. And that's five days of learning lost.
Just to drive home how contagious Omicron is, now the mayor has it, and everybody that was at that press conference has to be tested for COVID.
Teachers and staff are also falling ill to the variant. Is that a problem that's been addressed as students go back?
I don't see it anywhere in this agreement that was just discussed, right?
It's — I think they're hoping to implement this new testing as soon as possible. The problem with — what has been contentious about the testing plan is that the mayor was firm about not having an opt-out plan. So we have got an opt-in testing system, where parents have to opt in to the testing.
And so now the teachers union has taken it upon themselves to work with their communities and students and families to get more students signed up, so that you can at least reach a large number of students in each school who agree to be tested, so that you're not testing the same 10 percent every time.
So, as far as folks having been out as of late, the testing that was intended to happen before schools resumed last week, it didn't go well at all. There were pictures of tests stacked up outside FedEx boxes, and a lot of them were deemed invalid.
So, before they show up tomorrow, any testing that has to happen, that has either already been done or not. School is happening tomorrow, as far as we know today.
Hard choices that a lot of school districts around the country are facing.
Brandis Friedman of "Chicago Tonight" on WTTW, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."
My pleasure, Stephanie. Thank you.
Watch the Full Episode
Stephanie Sy is a PBS NewsHour correspondent and serves as anchor of PBS NewsHour West. Throughout her career, she served in anchor and correspondent capacities for ABC News, Al Jazeera America, CBSN, CNN International, and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior to joining NewsHour, she was with Yahoo News where she anchored coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections and reported from Donald Trump’s victory party on Election Day 2016.
Sam Lane is reporter/producer in PBS NewsHour's segment unit.
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