CHICAGO – Chicago parents Willie and Brittany Preston have spent almost a year wrestling with online school schedules for their six children, often with everyone hovering over devices around the dining room table.
On Thursday, they got some relief. Their youngest daughter, 4-year-old Lear, returned to class with thousands of others in pre-K and special education as the nation’s third-largest school district slowly reopened its doors following a bitter fight with the teachers union over COVID-19 protocols.
Willie Preston, who runs a construction firm with his wife, said nowhere can guarantee a coronavirus-free environment but he feels safe with the district’s steps: cleaned buildings, daily health screenings and new air filters.
“We just are not trained educators and we recognize our limitations,” he said. “For me as a parent, it makes me feel like we’re beating COVID and we’re going to get our lives back. And that’s good.’’
Three more of his children will return in the coming weeks as part of the district's gradual reopening for pre-K-8. The Chicago Teachers Union accepted the plan after defying district orders, city threats to lock them out of teaching systems, and talk of a potential strike.
Under the deal, Chicago will set aside 1,500 vaccinations weekly for teachers on top of 2,000 doses available this week through a partnership with Walgreens. Several educators lined up Thursday for vaccinations at a high school on Chicago's northwest side. There are also metrics allowing for schools to shut down when infections spike, for instance outbreaks in multiple classrooms over a short period.
Preston’s two high school children will keep learning online at their South Side home. The district hasn’t rolled out a plan for high school students' return.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot insisted that schools reopen, an argument that's played out nationwide as cities grapple with infections. She said online learning hasn't served many in the roughly 340,000-student district, particularly many Black and Hispanic students who comprise the majority. The district went fully remote last March.
Even after agreeing to the district’s safety plan, the union still argued that the district hasn’t done enough to protect teachers and that too few students want to return.
Roughly 3,200 pre-K and special education students briefly returned last month, or about 19% of those eligible. In a December parent survey, about 77,000 of eligible students said they wanted to return, but it's unclear how many would show up. For K-8, the district is offering two days of in-person instruction.
Lightfoot didn't wade into the aftermath of the union fight Thursday when she visited William H. Brown Elementary School to welcome students, who wore masks and worked at desks that were spaced apart. She urged families to talk directly to the district.
“We want to make sure we break through the noise and speak directly to parents,” she said. “I want to encourage our parents to continue to engage directly with the schools.”
Many parents remained skeptical.
Rosa Esquivel said she won’t send her 10- and 12-year-old back because she doesn’t believe the schools will be safe from the virus that infected her mother and sister and killed an aunt and uncle in her native Guatemala.
She worries her diabetes and her husband’s high blood pressure could put their own lives at risk if their kids brought the virus home from school. And they don't know when they'll get vaccines.
“We just thought it was best for us to have the kids stay remote,” said Esquivel, 40, who lives in the predominantly Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood.
Single mother Natassia Ballard, who lives on Chicago's South Side, said she’s holding off for now, but may change her mind when the weather improves and flu season ends.
She wants to know the teachers her two elementary-age children interact with are vaccinated. But it's been hard. One son has autism and is missing hands-on learning.
“He really wonders how he will fit in when the world opens up again,” she said.
Preston said his youngest child was excited to see friends, running to the school doors at Thursday’s drop off.
Preston, part of a citizen group called the Black Community Collaborative, said they've had to make sacrifices over the past year. His wife scaled back work to oversee school schedules. Things have been tricky when their teachers’ internet cuts out and the kids insist on video games or television. And if the high school students can't focus working in their rooms, they must “report to the dining room,” he joked.
“These kids are exhausted from being essentially locked in for a year, and that’s hard,” he said.
Follow Sophia Tareen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sophiatareen