Some Latino Parents Say Their Voices Are Being Drowned Out In Chicago School Reopening Debate

“Our decision needs to be respected,” said one mother who wants to send her children back to school in-person.

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Staff at McPherson Elementary School on Chicago's North Side welcome back prekindergarten students for the first day back of in-person learning Jan. 11, 2021. The transition to back to classrooms has been halted while CPS and the teachers union negotiate a reopening agreement. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
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Staff at McPherson Elementary School on Chicago's North Side welcome back prekindergarten students for the first day back of in-person learning Jan. 11, 2021. The transition to back to classrooms has been halted while CPS and the teachers union negotiate a reopening agreement. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Some Latino Parents Say Their Voices Are Being Drowned Out In Chicago School Reopening Debate

“Our decision needs to be respected,” said one mother who wants to send her children back to school in-person.

Nolberto Casas and his wife were excited when they learned their kindergartener could return to school in-person at Irma Ruiz Elementary, a Chicago public school in the Pilsen neighborhood.

“We highlighted February 1st with a yellow marker on our calendar,” Nolberto said in Spanish. His son has special needs and he worries he is practically failing kindergarten.

“Everyday is a struggle to get him to focus,” Casas said.

But Feb. 1 came and went without a return to school as Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union struggle to reach an agreement on school reopening. Teachers are refusing to work remotely only until a deal is settled.

Casas is now considering transferring him to a Catholic school. He was among the parents who came together Thursday for an online discussion hosted by Chicago Unheard, a digital platform focused on Chicago education. Parents spoke openly in Spanish about their views on the school reopening controversy.

As the tug of war between CPS and CTUUnion drags on, these parents said the discussions on social media among people on opposite ends of the issue and the back and forth between the district and the union are getting toxic.

Casas and others say they are hesitant to speak up because they fear being judged by others, especially people in their school community.

“If from the beginning, people are telling you ‘Oh, you are not looking at the science,’ or ‘Oh, you want everyone to die, including the teachers,’ who is gonna want to dialogue with someone who says that?” asked Carolina Barrera Tobon, a parent of two kids who go to a CPS elementary on the North Side.

As opinions keep getting louder, these parents said the voices of Spanish-speaking Latino families are drowning in this debate. This is happening even though nearly half of all students in CPS are Latino. According to a CPS survey of parents in December, 31% of Latino families say they wanted their preschool and elementary students to return for in-person classes.

Speaking comfortably in their native language, these parents said remote learning is not cutting it. Many first- and second-generation Latino immigrants face a number of unique challenges. Language is definitely a barrier, especially for Spanish-speaking parents trying to help their children with remote instruction in English.

Consistent access to the internet is another issue. “Not everyone has the resources or could afford paying a Comcast bill for more than a $100 dollars a month,” Johnny Alvarado said. Two of his daughters also go to a CPS school in Pilsen.

The city set up a free program with philanthropic support, and more than 50,000 students have signed up. But for Alvarado, “the service was horrible. Each time we tried to get in Google classrooms, it got cut off. We couldn’t log in on time. I got tired of that, and figured, I’ll just pay for the service.”

For Vanessa Chavez, the issue comes down to her worries about her children’s mental health isolated at home. She says her three children are tired of learning remotely.

Chavez understands many parents don’t trust in-person instruction right now and she respects their reasons.

But parents like her say they need to send their kids to school in-person. “Our decision needs to be respected,” said Chavez, a nursing home worker who lives in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood. “We don’t need just a babysitter. School is a big part of their development.”

Chavez and Casas trust their schools can safely reopen and mitigate the risk of infection. But Barrera Tobon reminded the group that the reality in many other schools, particularly in communities of color, is very different and many people don’t trust CPS.

“Historically, it’s been known the district makes lots of promises and doesn’t come through,” she said. “A lot of people trust the [Chicago Teachers] Union. They’ve fought for more resources, like a nurse in each school.”

But as the showdown between the school district and the teachers union continues, parents said union members need to be able to listen to the parents who want to return to school. And, they say, CPS officials should not have used a top-down approach when developing their reopening plan months ago.

“That plan should have been created with all of those involved in mind,” Barrera Tobon said.

Looking ahead, these parents say they want a choice for parents who need in-person school, and an option for teachers who need to stay home. They also want a system in place that’s truly ready to keep staff and students safe in all schools.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.