Welcome to Issue #15 of the Red Star Bulletin!
The aim of this bulletin is to bring Chicago Democratic Socialists of America members a regular round-up of important legislation, committee meetings, and other updates from City Hall, as well as analysis of what this means for our organizing as socialists.
Make no mistake: the City Council is not friendly terrain for us. We must first and foremost continue to build power in the places it derives from–our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and the streets. But we hope to give CDSA members information they need to assess the electoral project we’re embarking on, and to continue building it into a powerful vehicle for working-class politics in our city.
In this special issue, we look at the remote learning guidelines CPS put forth and its massive shortcomings.
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Chicago Public Schools (CPS) will reopen remotely on September 8 after determined resistance from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and allied students, parents, and community organizations forced Lori Lightfoot to back down from a disastrous plan for some in-person classes.
But true to form, the petulant mayor and her top administrators at CPS are trying to saddle teachers with remote learning guidelines that CTU members call “cruel” and “designed to fail.”
“Lightfoot is sticking it to CTU, but really, she’s sticking it to kids and to parents,” said Kirstin Roberts, a pre-Kindergarten teacher at Brentano on the Northwest Side. “CPS can publish pages and pages of guidelines. But we’re the ones who actually have to do the work of implementing them, and parents are the ones who have to get their kids to go along with this.”
Meanwhile, the clerks, clinicians, tech coordinators, and other workers required this week to return to more than 100 CPS buildings are finding unsafe conditions, with little enforcement of even basic protocols to battle the pandemic. “As educators return to buildings,” the CTU said in a statement, “they are finding that PPE, safety and cleaning protocols are completely inconsistent, uncoordinated and inadequate, and do not inspire confidence in a safe start to the school year. The conditions also do not mitigate risk and will not consistently keep people safe as CPS demands more people enter school buildings.”
Lightfoot and CPS gave in to the inevitable and accepted a remote opening by early August. By then, opinion surveys showed a clear majority of likely voters (54 percent to 29 percent) opposed reopening schools for in-person learning. At 61 percent, African American voters were even more strongly opposed to an in-person reopening.
The final blow came when CTU announced plans for a vote to authorize a strike if CPS carried through the deadly plan for a “hybrid” scheme in which revolving platoons of students would attend in-person classes at least two days a week. The next day, Lightfoot and CPS officials announced all-remote learning for the first quarter.
Lightfoot had shown the same stubborn refusal to accept reality last March when she insisted schools must remain open—until Governor J. B. Pritzker did her job for her. This time, her usual contempt for teachers came through at the press conference when she ignored the issue of reopening for the first few minutes of her remarks to pay extended tribute to…a wounded cop.
Unsurprisingly, CPS blew through several promised deadlines to release guidelines for remote learning. As Hancock College Prep Principal Vanessa Puentes acknowledged at a Local School Council meeting, the problem was that CPS’s obsession with the proposed two days of in-person instruction “really derailed us” from drawing up any plans for remote learning. After the switch to all remote, she said, “we are back to the drawing board.”
The eventually released guidelines are no better for whatever extra time it took to throw them together. Students, even the youngest among them, will be expected to spend unbroken hours in front of a computer screen, and teachers will not have any extra prep time or personal development days—even though they are going to have to teach in entirely new ways.
“CPS is hung up on trying to apply our contract terms onto remote learning, despite the fact that no one was thinking about remote learning during a pandemic when we negotiated the contract,” said CTU deputy counsel Thad Goodchild during a video bargaining update for union members. “It doesn’t make sense for CPS to say that students should be following the same daily schedule that they would have done in a school building. It doesn’t make sense logistically or educationally.”
Kirstin Roberts wonders about the motives behind the paltry guidelines. “It occurs to me that they’re more interested in making sure that remote learning doesn’t work. Maybe they think that if it’s such a miserable failure, people won’t want to extend remote learning into the second quarter, even if the COVID numbers are still really bad. Because that’s their long game—they want schools reopened.”
While there are significant disagreements over how children should be taught during the pandemic, many parents, teachers, and politicians seem to agree on one point: children are falling behind. Supposedly, the research confirms it. But this focus overlooks the reality that advancement through the US education system is arbitrary. It also largely discounts the importance of students’ mental and physical well-being during the largest public health crisis in a century.
What students are “falling behind”? How will “falling behind” impact their lives? If we lived in a world that guaranteed every human being the resources necessary to survive and thrive, there would be no danger to falling behind. But we do not live in that world. We live in a world of savage competition where systemic failings, as well as minor personal missteps, can devastate people’s lives. Schooling, ostensibly, prepares students to be useful within capitalism and through their learned utility, to survive. Upsetting or interrupting the process of instilling that utility in students thereby threatens their very ability to survive.
This approach to the situation is backward. Our primary concern should be the health and well-being of children, as well as the people responsible for educating them. Even before the onset of COVID-19, schooling took a significant toll on students’ mental health. The prospect of full-day remote learning through a pandemic is unlikely to decrease student anxiety. And decreasing student anxiety should be one of our primary concerns right now.
This pandemic is unlikely to subside during this school year and could significantly impact next school year (and beyond). With confirmed cases of people being reinfected by COVID-19 raising doubt that an effective vaccine is forthcoming, we need to be prepared for our current situation to continue for years. Add to that the looming eviction and foreclosure crisis caused by the inaction of politicians in the face of a severe economic downturn, and you can be sure that students, like the rest of us, have a lot on their minds. Adding to their stress levels by continuing to insist on a normal school workload—or anything close to it—is wildly irresponsible.
We need to ask ourselves which is more important: showing children that their health and well-being are our primary concerns, or pushing them to meet arbitrary benchmarks for success during intersecting health, political, and economic catastrophes?
Roberts says the CTU has its work cut out for it. “I do think we’ll push some of the worst guidelines back,” she said. “But I also think you’ll see a lot of schools doing creative resistance collectively—because it’s not only teachers but some principals who think this is wrong.”
The CTU is vowing to continue fighting not only for tolerable conditions for its members but for the learning conditions its students and their parents deserve. During the bargaining update, CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said: “We are not only bringing the issues that impact us as educators, those that impact clinicians and PSRPs, but we’re also bringing the needs of our students to the table, as well as their families—because it works when we are working together.”
The Red Star Bulletin was conceived by Ramsin Canon and is a project of the Political Education & Policy Committee. This issue was drafted by CDSA members. Special contributions were made by Brent Glass, Nick Hussong, Charlotte Kissinger, Alan Maass, and Sveta Stoytcheva. Graphics were contributed by Patrick O’Connell and Jon Lyons. If you would like to contribute to the Red Star Bulletin or have any feedback, email email@example.com.