CPS Parents Caught in the Middle as Negotiations Drag On

Monday was to have been the first day that thousands of Chicago Public Schools students in kindergarten through eighth grade could return to their classrooms since March, when lessons suddenly went virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, following dual Sunday evening press conferences from CPS and Chicago Teachers Union leadership, classes were again held remotely.

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CPS is will also be virtual Tuesday and Wednesday for what Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration on Monday night termed a “cooling-off” period after a day of negotiations that she and CPS CEO Janice Jackson in a joint statement said led to a “milestone” partial agreement.

READ: CPS Won’t Lock Out AWOL Teachers in Hopes of Reaching Deal, Preventing Strike

With the district’s assurances teachers won’t be locked out of their Google suite virtual classrooms, CTU said its members will continue to teach remotely, rather than taking a vote that would likely lead to a strike.

The two sides have the next two days to continue their negotiations over the save return to in-person learning.

It’s enough to give Ryan Griffin, a father of three, whiplash.

“It’s a fiasco for parents. With 24 hours notice – I can’t underestimate how disruptive that is to families’ lives,” he said.

Griffin is a member of the Chicago Parents Collective, an organization formed three weeks ago out of frustration with the back-and-forth between CPS and CTU.

While he understands why CPS wasn’t ready to reopen schools at the start of the school year in August, he said there has now been six months to plan, and parents – and their children – deserve to know when they’ll have the option to go back to school.

“I understand the fear,” Griffin said. “I think we’ve broken through those fears.”

Whether parents choose remote or in-person learning, he said both options should be available.

“We can’t sit her in a stalemate, until when? Next September?” he said.

He’s ready to send his son back to school after watching and helping him learn online these many months.

Young students, who are increasingly adopting to the virtual technology, find ways to mute their lessons or play a game when they’re supposed to be learning remotely.

“We’ve underestimated the impact that that teacher’s presence brings to our children’s development,” he said. “You take for granted sending your kid off to school every day and having an authority figure that they look up to in a teacher.”

Everyone had to live through a teachers strike in 2019, and they shouldn’t have to do it again, he said, while also battling a pandemic.

Whatever metrics they settle on for when and how to return to school, Griffin said there needs to be baby steps, at least, toward reopening schools.

Cortney Ritsema, a mom of three, is part of another burgeoning parents group, which on Monday organized a “sick out.”

She kept her daughter out of the virtual classroom Monday in an effort to send a message to CPS.

“With the sick out we are trying to do an action that hits the school where it counts, and if you know anything about CPS you know that attendance is something they track like crazy so this is an easy way for us to get a clear representation of: parents want a voice in this, and here’s how many,” Ritsema said.

A CPS spokesperson said Monday night the district could not share attendance data that quickly, given that a calculation is use based on data entered by schools.

It’s not that Ritsema’s daughter didn’t have lessons when she stayed home “sick” from remote learning.

The parents group had prepared a tool kit, with lessons for students about boycotts and civil action; Ritsema’s girls spent the day writing letters to the principals about their situation, and making drawings and posters that read “Let Our Teachers Teach Us Online” and “Don’t Make Our Teachers Choose Between Their Health and Their Students!”

Ritsema said she had tried to get involved. She’s on her local school council, she watched CPS’ “ask the experts” webinars featuring Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, and she checked data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When she didn’t find CDC guidelines matching what CPS is offering, she tried to get answers — only to be rebuffed, she said.

“Every time I went it left me frustrated because I wasn’t getting answers, like most parents at these events, we weren’t getting answers to, like, our most basic questions,” she said.

She said teachers and the district can bargain, but parents deserve more representation – and without an elected school board, the Board of Education doesn’t fit the bill. She said an attempt by local school councils to get information from CPS about reopening plans was met with a response from the district’s outreach coordination reminding them to spread “accurate information.”

Parents have an obvious, vested interest in how negotiations go. But it’s not just Chicago that’s paying attention.

Reporters in Washington pressed White House press secretary Jen Psaki during her Monday briefing whether President Joe Biden has a stake and should get involved.

“The President has been — has enormous respect for Mayor Lightfoot, and he has also been a strong ally to teachers his entire career. Of course, as you know, Dr. Biden, his wife, is a teacher — so even in his home,” Psaki said. “He trusts the mayor and the unions to work this out.  They’re both prioritizing the right things, which is ensuring the health and safety of the kids and teachers, and working to make sure that children in Chicago are getting the education they deserve.”

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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