It’s hard to find anything good to say about nearly a year of remote learning. For some kids, months of Zooming without in-class contact with both teachers and fellow students has had disastrous consequences and unintended effects—educational, social and emotional—that we are only just beginning to understand.
The fear, of course, is that our children have fallen woefully behind, and catching up could take months or years. What we know for sure is that we cannot afford another semester of remote learning. It’s asking too much of teachers, parents and, most important, our kids, who need to be back in the classroom for a panoply of reasons. And with the vaccine now widely available to virtually everyone who wants it, the rationales for continuing to keep children out of the classroom and away from their vaccine-eligible teachers grow thinner by the day.
That’s why we were thrilled when Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, made her surprise call May 13 for a full reopening of public schools by the fall.
“Conditions have changed,” Weingarten said. “We can and must reopen schools in the fall for in-person teaching, learning and support. And keep them open. Fully and safely for five days a week.”
What we found less than thrilling was the Chicago Teachers Union’s rather tepid response, sowing yet more contentious uncertainty about whether it can or will be on board.
“President Weingarten is a national leader. Our work is centered on Chicago, and Black and Brown families in Chicago are centered on justice and fairness. They will need more than vaccines to instill confidence in returning their children to school buildings,” including strong ventilation systems and safety protocols agreed to after engagement with “parents, students and educators” about how to best spend COVID relief funds flowing soon to the district, the CTU, a unit of Weingarten’s national organization, said in a statement to Crain’s.
No one argues that a full, five-day-a-week return to the classroom could be done safely without continuing many of the enhanced precautions that have already been put in place by Chicago Public Schools officials. Keeping teachers and children safe is the top priority.
What is increasingly apparent is that children need the best chance to succeed. If there’s anything that the past year taught us, it’s that remote learning falls short on so many fronts.
What Weingarten is recognizing is pure and simple: The vaccines are working to drive infection rates down. Her comments came during a flurry of positive news about the state of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and in Illinois in the past couple of weeks. Both the city and state are moving closer to full normalcy as infection rates continue to fall locally and nationally. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention pulled back on mask mandates, announcing that those who have been vaccinated no longer need to wear masks in most settings—a stunning recognition of the success and pace at which the vaccines are working in our communities.
Even Lollapalooza is reportedly feeling giddy, for good reason. Of course, an outdoor music festival getting the green light to reopen this summer is not a benchmark for reopening schools fully. But it is a recognition of this: We have crossed a significant milestone in the fight against COVID-19. And with reports that we are unlikely to reach herd immunity anytime soon, we are learning to live with the virus more successfully, as many scientists have expected for many months. But the future of Chicago and its recovery from a year that we would all like to forget depends so much on getting our schools back to functioning at full power.
We agree with the CTU that more work needs to be done to engage with families, especially in Black and Brown communities. The city needs to work harder to get the vaccine out to the neighborhoods where vaccine adoption rates are still low. But what the CTU needs to do is put forth a good-faith effort to work collaboratively with CPS and place the needs of children first, rather than turning the conversation over reopening into another opportunity to score a win over the administration.
Taking a cue from one of the largest national teachers unions and giving full-throated support to in-person learning this fall would be a nice place to start.