Eleshia Smith is stuck.
As a Chicago public school teacher, she’s supposed to be teaching from her classroom this week, getting ready for the scheduled return of high schoolers on Monday.
She’s also a single parent to a first grader. He can’t stay home by himself and she doesn’t get off work in time to pick him up from school, where there’s no after care.
So she’s been staying at home this week, worrying.
“I am going to have to lose my job or get fired because I don’t have anyone who could pick him up,” Smith said.
Many teachers like Smith are struggling as CPS prepares to bring back thousands more students — high schoolers as well more elementary school students — starting Monday for the last quarter of the school year. This issue is now a sticking point in the negotiations between the school district and the Chicago Teachers Union as they try to land the high school reopening agreement. Without one, the April 19 scheduled high school reopening could be delayed.
Teachers aren’t the only ones worrying about child care. Parents across Chicago are scrambling to find after-school options. Before the pandemic, many schools were community hubs where students could stay for a couple more hours to play sports or do art, music or homework. But now, most activities are happening virtually.
“It can be difficult,” said Maricela Bautista, director of community schools with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, which moved all its after-school activities based in schools like homework help and photography classes online. “Especially in the community that we live in, parents are working late trying to provide for their children.”
To go back into schools, community organizations like the council say they need more guidance, Bautista said. She hopes in-person activities could resume in the summer once her staff is vaccinated.
Working parents want kids to stay after school
Working parents, like Smith, want elementary schools to bring back tuition-based after school care. Smith also wants the district to prioritize CPS teachers who may need to leave an hour or two early to pick up their kids, or allow high schools like the one where she works to become a learning hub for teachers and staff to bring their kids with them and do school remotely.
District officials say schools are free to offer after-school services using district-approved school staff and community partners, as they normally would. Parents can also take their children to one of 14 CPS learning hubs across the city where kids can go from 8 a.m to 5 p.m.
But the hubs are not convenient for many parents who live or work in other areas of the city. In Smith’s case, the hubs aren’t a viable option. She also has health issues. She requested an accommodation from the school district to work from home for that reason, but it was denied.
Some outside organizations are offering in-person activities for students, but they are limited. The Union League Boys and Girls Club, for example, is running virtual and in-person after school classes across the city in schools and other locations. The organization is also adding new in-school sites at Chopin Elementary, Daley Elementary, Air Force Academy, and four Acero charter schools.
“If [parents] are not able to make it by dismissal time, we have a program where your kids will have time to do homework with our mentors,” said Rosita Correa, program director at the club.
Before the pandemic, club officials say their average daily attendance was about 2,000 children but that dropped during the pandemic. The club also had to move in-school programming from schools to nearby churches. As the club transitions back into schools while maintaining its virtual programming, daily enrollment is now around 1,500 kids.
The Chicago Park District also offers activities after school, both in-person and virtually. But enrollment for the in-person after-school program this winter was down 80% compared to before the pandemic. Classes are limited to 15 kids per instructor. Several organizations, including the Union League Boys and Girls Club and the park district, are getting ready to offer in-person summer programming.
“What if there is a huge traffic jam?”
But in a big city like Chicago, not all parents can get to park district facilities, community-based after-school programs, or pay for private ones.
That leaves families stuck with firm school pick-up times, which can be very stressful.
“What if you have a flat tire, or what if there is a huge traffic jam?,” said Benoit Roux, a parent of two students at Lincoln elementary in Lincoln Park.
Roux and his wife, who work in a lab, can move their work day around to pick up their kids on time. “We have quite a bit of freedom in the sense that you just have to start earlier, you cut your lunch in half,” Roux said. “Then you can finish at 4 p.m. instead of 5 p.m.”
But other parents, including teachers, don’t have flexible schedules. Recently, a school official at Inter-American Magnet School on the North Side reported a parent to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services after her child was picked up a few minutes late. That parent was also a CPS teacher.
Officials say the policy about calling DCFS for a late pick-up is not intended to be a first step, but rather an option after calling emergency contacts and all other avenues to reach an adult to pick up a child have been exhausted.
Smith was outraged when she heard DCFS was called on the parent-teacher for picking up her child late. Smith says she sympathizes with the parent because, in any other scenario, it could have been her.