Let the students speak

High school students want more voice in reopening process

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A man leads a chant to CTU, SEIU protestors on the first day of the strike last year. Photo by Josh Blustein ’20.

Students don’t have much input on returning to in-person school. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) says they’re “for the kids,” yet individual students have never weighed in nor do they have a public outlet for voicing their concerns. Students are the ones returning and should have a say in the reopening process, because the type of learning students receive can dramatically affect their lives. Students can return to school safely, and they should have that choice, but not dictated by the Chicago Teachers Union. 

With the promise of the COVID-19 vaccine’s success, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is preparing for a potential return to in-person learning next semester. CPS plans to have prekindergarten and special education cluster programs return Jan. 11 and kindergarten through eighth grade students return in a hybrid model Feb. 1. To gauge opinions on returning to in-person learning, intent-to-return forms for teachers and opt-in forms for eligible students were sent out late November. The results of these forms aren’t available at this time. During this time, CTU leaders filed a motion that focuses on preventing CPS from requiring in-person learning until both parties have “bargained” about the decision in “good faith.”  Contract tracing data from the last 30 days has shown that schools are currently considered a low potential exposure location, meaning that someone who contracted COVID-19 was present in the building but the transmission most likely didn’t occur there.

The CTU has been aggressively pushing back on returning-to-school plans instead of working with CPS. The CTU recently filed an injunction against CPS can halt the return to in-person learning if the CTU succeeds. CTU president Jesse Sharkey also said in a CBS article that a “strike isn’t out of the question.” They’re more focused on their relationship with CPS, not focusing on students getting back to school. The CTU needs to cooperate because remote learning cannot replace in-person learning. Students are falling behind. 

The CTU has been making demands at CPS but none of these demands include parent or students’ voices. These demands include having a 3 percent positivity threshold in order to reopen schools and a shutdown if the percentage goes above 3 percent, all staff being tested on a rotated basis, and the creation of a CTU-CPS joint committee for COVID-19 and school-level safety committees. Also, vaccines are delivered to teachers in schools. Reopening schools also include the students, not just the teachers. The students and their families need a public outlet, such as a public forum, to include their reopening opinions and concerns. 

Students should have voices on reopening schools because remote learning doesn’t work well for all students. Students’ education and well-being are being dramatically affected by remote learning. The Washington Post found “most” students were behind starting this school year and the academic “losses will escalate.” In CPS, the enrollment dropped by 15,000 students this year.

Moreover, studies have found remote learning can also affect students’ mental health. The Chicago Tribune found, through a national study, 46 percent of teachers reported encountering students with mental health concerns. 

Students shouldn’t have to drop out or transfer because they feel like they’re not getting a decent education. Even though COVID-19 is a strenuous time, remote learning shouldn’t make students’ lives harder, academically or mentally. 

Even though surveys have been sent out to CPS families on remote learning, the surveys are usually sent out to parents, not students. When the CTU did polling on remote learning, they polled Chicago voters, not CPS parents or students. 

In their demands, the CTU doesn’t want any simultaneous learning, despite New York City integrating this teaching into their reopening plans. Without simultaneous learning, it is impossible to make remote learning and in-person learning possible simultaneously. 

Officials, especially teachers, can form their stances on remote learning from their experiences. The CTU has the privilege of telling CPS and the public what they want for reopening schools. Students don’t have that. The CPS remote learning journey will not be a full, representative story if students are not involved. 

However, COVID-19 is still a large threat in Chicago. Parents have also said in surveys that they don’t feel comfortable sending their kids back to school right now because the student or their family may be at high risk.

 Despite CTU’s fight against reopening schools, schools may be safer than once thought. Out of the 39% of Illinois public schools that are open, the Chicago Sun Times found “little confirmed exposure to the coronavirus” in the past month. The Department of Illinois Public Health also found that student-aged COVID-19 cases were not tied to school facilities. Major U.S cities, such as New York City, reopened their schools. 

COVID-19 is a huge threat now, but may slowly diminish. The CDC authorized emergency use for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine but the CDC also listed prioritized groups. According to Washington Post projections, Teachers are “second in line” for the vaccine, after essential workers. There are currently COVID-19 vaccine trials for kids 12 and up. 

If CTU wins their injunction, reopening schools will almost certainly be delayed. If schools are deemed safe, there should be a push on both sides to give students the option of in-person learning. Science should be the main indicator on returning to schools, not a worker’s union that functions more as a political action committee.

The CTU shouldn’t be the ones making-or-breaking reopening school plans because students don’t get a say in the reopening plans when their education is at stake. The CTU needs to get over their political tensions and focus on returning students to school. However, students should also have input by having remote learning surveys available to them and public forums should be held for students and their families to speak publicly on remote learning/returning to school. The students’ education is at stake, let them speak.