What’s at Stake in the Fight Over Reopening Schools
The lack of trust is not just about the character of the powerful actors involved; it also has to do with what parents and teachers understand about the conditions of the school buildings, and whether schools are likely to carry out health and safety protocols successfully. Schools can be safe “as long as the school is following a mitigation plan,” as one doctor from the University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital put it. But parents’ and teachers’ trepidation about returning to school has everything to do with whether schools will consistently adhere to one.
In big cities, schools in the poorest neighborhoods consistently strain to maintain buildings that are often old and in varying states of disrepair. This past summer, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released its first report since 1996 on the physical condition of the nation’s public schools. It found that a majority cannot make needed major building repairs because of the expense. Among the most common problems encountered were those involving expensive H.V.A.C. systems, which deal with heating, cooling and ventilation. The study found that forty-one per cent of schools needed to repair or replace their antiquated heating and ventilation systems. It is not anti-science to question whether these same school districts are now, somehow, able to fix longstanding ventilation and cleaning issues. In 2018, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation into the “filthy conditions” of some Chicago schools found that, of the hundred and twenty-five schools it examined, ninety-one failed a quick cleanliness inspection.
These are the conditions that underlie the concerns of public-school teachers and Black and brown parents. Once they overlap with deteriorating efforts to gain control over the coronavirus, fears are heightened, not assuaged. Black and brown parents are not derelict in their responsibilities as parents by opting for remote learning; they are trying to keep their kids safe. In a perfect world, almost no one would choose remote learning over being in person with teachers. It is an imperfect solution during an unprecedented and devastating crisis. I spoke with the vice-president of the C.T.U., Stacy Davis Gates, and she expressed dismay that the experiences of Black and Latinx families are being marginalized in the debate over reopening. “Why are Black people dying? Because they’re going to work. Why are brown people infected? Because they’re going to work. They are working in service-related industries. And they have children, right? Well, they’re not sending them to school, because they already know how institutions treat them,” Gates said. “See, if we dig in and ask a Black person, a Black family, if we dig in and ask a brown person and a brown family, then we would have answers. But everyone drives right past those families.”
Chicago public schools are only eleven per cent white; Black and Latinx students make up eighty-one per cent of the student body. Unsurprisingly, white students are overrepresented among those opting for in-person learning, and also those who are actually showing up to school. Since early January, there has been a phased-in return to public-school buildings, beginning with preschool and special-education students, with the next phase bringing back kids in kindergarten through eighth grade. Among C.P.S. elementary-school students, only thirty-one per cent of Latinx students, thirty-three per cent of Asian students, and thirty-four per cent of Black students were opted to return to school buildings by their parents. In contrast, the parents of more than sixty-seven per cent of white children opted them in.
But, as schools began to open in early January, the numbers of students who actually showed up were even smaller. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that most of the news at the time was predicting a wave of post-holiday infections, and public officials were continuing to encourage people to stay home if they were able. Indeed, on January 10th, Lightfoot announced a stay-at-home advisory; city residents were “strongly advised” to comply. The week of January 11th, Chicago Public Schools expected fifty-five hundred students to return to school buildings; only fifty-nine per cent showed up. Among those who did, there was less than fifty per cent attendance among Black students; sixty-two per cent of Latinx students were present, along with sixty-six per cent of Asian students. White students were by far the most responsive, with three-quarters of those who opted in arriving for in-person school.
This is why the argument—from Lightfoot, Jackson (the C.P.S. chief), and others—that the return to school is about equity rings so hollow. Pushing for schools to reopen even as the overwhelming majority of Black and Latinx parents opt for remote learning will only undermine remote instruction, all while catering to the disproportionate number of white students who show up in person. Jackson has gone so far as to lock out elementary and middle-school teachers from their remote accounts if they refuse to show up for in-person lessons, cutting off the thousands of Black and Latinx students who have chosen to remain at home for remote learning.
I spoke with a preschool teacher named Kirstin Roberts, whom C.P.S. locked out of her remote-teaching account when she refused to appear for in-person classes. Roberts has been a teacher for fourteen years, and is married to a C.P.S. nurse. They are parents to a seventh-grade C.P.S. student, and share a residence with Roberts’s seventy-six-year-old mother and seventy-eight-year-old father. “The day that I was locked out, they sent a substitute, who was teaching remotely. So it was clear that it was retribution punishment. But it was the kind of punishment that hurt the children that I teach,” Roberts told me. Roberts was able to return to teaching, on a technicality. “We still have dozens of educators in Chicago who have taken the same exact action I did,” she said. “They’ve had a substitute some days, no substitute—you know, a principal might pop in, to take attendance, and then pop back out. It’s just completely unacceptable.”
Lightfoot is making overtures to white families because she is fearful that they may pack up their tax dollars and leave, just as the city is straining from the pandemic’s attendant economic crisis. In a January press conference, she said, “Here’s what I’m hearing from residents all around the city, and from parents in particular: If we don’t have stability in the public-school system, why should we stay in Chicago? If we have to worry about lockouts and strikes, particularly after a historic contract, where everyone thought we had bought labor peace for five years. People vote with their feet.” She continued, “And what I worry about is with young families—one of the first questions they ask is ‘How is the school system?’ And if the answer is ‘completely rife with strife and uncertainty,’ that sends a real message: don’t stay in Chicago.” She added that the city should be “growing our population, not shrinking it.”
As federal expenditures have shrunk in recent decades, cities have aimed to transform into growth machines, seeking out investment and higher-income residents to help make up the difference. They have also looked to minimize the expense of lower-income residents, who are more likely to absorb tax dollars than contribute them. As a result, places like Chicago have become increasingly hostile to poor and working-class Black and Latinx families, as evidenced by a dearth of affordable housing and public services, under-resourced public schools, brutal police, and punitive criminal-justice systems. The impact of starving the public sector and trying to attract and maintain whiter, richer residents has been devastating to ordinary Black and brown families. Over the past two decades, two hundred thousand African-Americans have left Chicago, fifty thousand of them just since 2015. Public officials don’t have press conferences to lament the flight of Black Chicagoans when the increased presence of upwardly mobile white residents is what is desired.
This longing for stability on terms that preserve the underlying racism and inequity of the status quo is part of the larger context for the conflict with the Chicago Teachers Union. The C.P.S. threat to lock out grade-school teachers for not appearing in person, even if there are few students for them to teach in the building, is also a flex by school management to exercise power over its labor force. Along with the threat of a lockout, C.P.S. has promised to axe the pay of workers who do not report in person. It’s a big consequence in the midst of the worst financial crisis in more than a generation. But labor peace on the terms set by city officials is about creating the kind of environment where business can thrive.
In a press conference held in January, Lightfoot compared teachers to “essential workers.” She said that she understood their fears about returning to school buildings, but “just as I understand the concerns and fears of the day-care workers, the factory workers, the health-care workers, the grocery-store and construction and transit and sanitation and other workers whose jobs do not allow them to work remotely and stay at home.” Of course, there are some jobs that cannot be done remotely, but teaching is not one of them. The recently invented moniker “essential worker” has been wielded to force workers to labor in an environment about which they have very little say. Consider how, throughout the pandemic, meatpacking workers have been forced to endure brutal workplace conditions—which have produced regular outbreaks of the virus—after the Trump Administration declared meat production essential. Meatpackers are not teachers, but if given the choice to bargain over the terms of their labor, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, they would probably take it.