When Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson talks about reopening for in-person learning, she points to statistics and facts.
She notes the science that says COVID-19 isn’t being transmitted at schools in the way many feared and she highlights the school district’s $100 million investment in masks, cleaning, air purifiers and other safety measures.
But when many parents and teachers discuss why they don’t want to remain remote, they often point to long-standing issues with the school district — issues that have eroded trust.
This is especially true of Black parents and teachers. They charge the district has disinvested in their schools for decades, closing many and letting others fall into disrepair. They also say the quality of schools plays into it. According to the most recent CPS data, 30% of Black students are in poorly-rated schools, compared to 9% of white students and 8% of Latino students.
“You are asking folks to trust an institution that has failed them for generations,” said Whitney Jean, a teacher at South Shore Fine Arts Academy who spoke at a Chicago Teachers Union press conference recently. “CPS has a history of not caring about Black children and this is before COVID. So I think it is very unfair for this institution to think that we are going to trust them with our Black life.”
Only 30% of Black families said they plan to bring their children for in-person learning, even as they are seeing the biggest increases in absenteeism and failing grades in remote learning. Under the deal with the CTU, elementary school students begin returning on March 1. Preschool and some special education students are already back.
The next opportunity for new families to return is in the fourth quarter, in mid-April. To get more of them to bring their children back, some say, the school district will have to deal with trust issues head on.
The parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand has made trust the No. 1 pillar of a new campaign to try to get the school district to listen to parents as it moves forward with in-person and remote learning.
Jackson declined to be interviewed for this story. But she has acknowledged in the past, before the pandemic, that a lack of trust is a major problem. And when heralding the reopening deal made with the union, she said that she intends to be more collaborative and transparent in the future.
Others say Black families may not be as resistant to bringing their children back as it might seem. A quarter of Black families did not respond to the survey about returning to school. No one knows for sure why they didn’t respond or what their preferences are.
Further, they say Jackson has done a lot in her three years as CEO to show that it is a new day in CPS. Her administration has focused money on fixing school buildings on the South and West sides. It also has provided extra grants to schools that are losing students and has added specialty programs to others so that they can attract more students.
CPS parent Teffany Andersen said she doesn’t like teachers trying to sow distrust in the school system’s plan to reopen schools. She said rhetoric about how teachers might die is not helpful.
“I really have faith and trust in our principals and our administrators and our teachers,” said Andersen, whose daughter goes Bronzeville Classical School, which was opened in 2018 to bring more quality options to the South Side. “Our principal has overcommunicated with us letting us know where they are, how many kids will return in each room. I was just very comfortable with that.”
But many other parents and teachers are deeply skeptical. Take Joseph Williams. A father of five CPS students, he’s one of the key figures in the Raise Your Hand campaign. He often cites the condition of his children’s schools prior to the pandemic as a reason he and his wife don’t feel it is safe to return yet.
“We faced a pandemic way before we even entered the pandemic,” Williams said. “Schools were already facing infrastructure issues. We had mice in schools, we had lead in water where water fountains had to be closed off. We went through all this stuff way before.”
He also said schools do not exist in a vacuum. Schools that lack resources are often in communities that also lack investment, he said.
Williams and others say they want the school district to start really listening to parents. They say it feels like district leaders are just telling them what they are going to do.
Bridgett White also said her past experiences with CPS are influencing her views on returning to the classroom. She lives in Auburn Gresham on the South Side and said she has struggled to find schools that she thinks are good enough for her children.
“I have bounced around from school to school for my students because of the academics or the environment,” White said. “And when you try to escalate things within the school system, it kind of falls on deaf ears and you just got to take matters into your own hands.”
Her children have had to travel long distances outside of her neighborhood in order to get to high-performing schools, she said.
For others, the lack of trust comes up every time they drive down the streets of the South and West sides and see one shuttered school building after another. The school district has closed more than 100 schools over the past decade for under-enrollment,poor performance or both.
Many argue that the lack of investment in these schools is what led to the under-enrollment and poor performance.
“This needs to stop,” said Aisha Wade-Bey, a CPS mother and teacher. “It’s a fight constantly in the Black community, we are being decimated. One by one, community by community.”
Under Jackson, the school closings have slowed considerably and she has shifted to a new limited-use strategy that she says includes more community input. The strategy is to close a few under-enrolled schools and replace them with one new school and building.
But this fall, Wade-Bey was involved in an effort to prevent the school district from adopting a plan to close Lawndale Community Academy, the West Side elementary school where she teaches. She also went on a hunger strike in 2015 to prevent the school district from closing Dyett High School in Washington Park, the last open-enrollment high school in the area. The school was ultimately saved and reopened as an arts high school.
At a CTU press conference, Wade-Bey said having to fight to keep schools open has caused her to lose faith that the school district on its own will do right for her students and her children.