As School Year Nears, Some Chicago Parents Push Back Against Limited Virtual Option

Chicago Public Schools is requiring masks for all children, even if vaccinated. Still, worried parents want greater access to remote learning.

WBEZ
Chinella Asia Miller poses with some of her children. From left to right, Kyle Miller, 9, Kimora Jones, 12, Chinella Asia Miller, Khalil Cotton 17, Ka Chyna Cotton, 18. Miller doesn't trust the school system to keep their children safe. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
WBEZ
Chinella Asia Miller poses with some of her children. From left to right, Kyle Miller, 9, Kimora Jones, 12, Chinella Asia Miller, Khalil Cotton 17, Ka Chyna Cotton, 18. Miller doesn't trust the school system to keep their children safe. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

As School Year Nears, Some Chicago Parents Push Back Against Limited Virtual Option

Chicago Public Schools is requiring masks for all children, even if vaccinated. Still, worried parents want greater access to remote learning.

Chicago Public Schools officials for months have been crystal clear about one thing: When school resumes on Aug. 30, it will be in-person five days a week with nearly every student back in school buildings.

But as the new year approaches, some parents are pushing back, arguing that the school district should be trying to accommodate parents who are scared to send their children back because of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m gonna fight it,” said Chinella Asia Miller, who has six children in district schools. “We deserve to feel safe. That is the main point.”

Miller said she knows other parents who feel as she does, especially those whose children are at South and West side schools that have been under-resourced for decades.

Chicago Public Schools, like most school districts in Illinois and across the nation, is forging ahead with plans for a regular school year. Only a limited number of medically fragile students in Chicago will be allowed to continue remote school in a citywide virtual academy.

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Public Health Department, said the default should be almost all students in school.

“There was an unbelievable amount of research that was done and studies that were done, including here in Chicago, looking at this,” Dr. Arwady said. “We saw really clearly in Chicago, across the country, and even around the world, that where schools have appropriate mitigation in place, even when there is not a vaccine available, that the risks are not higher than they are in community settings. They’re not driving major outbreaks.”

She points out that most private schools were open in Chicago last year and that in some states schools were fully open, even amid surges of COVID-19.

Arwady adds that, since children younger than 12 can’t yet be vaccinated, it is important that the adults around them are.

Chicago Public Schools also doesn’t have much choice but to get almost all students in school.

A resolution passed by the state Board of Education in May said schools must resume fully in-person and carved out only very limited exceptions for remote learning. These include for students who are ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine and are also under a quarantine order. ISBE also said that under pre-pandemic policies, districts can allow remote learning plans for individual students who have medical conditions that prevent them from regularly attending school and also get approval from a medical professional.

New York City is not offering a remote option at all. Los Angeles schools are opening the door wide to families who want a virtual option, allowing them to choose it if they have medical, social-emotional or other concerns.

CPS did not survey parents about remote learning, as they did last year, so it is impossible to know whether a reluctance to send children back is widespread. Many parents seem satisfied with the limited remote option based on interviews, social media posts and public comments.

District officials last week said all students and teachers must be masked, regardless of their vaccination status. But they said students can take them off outside during recess, while eating or drinking and when playing some sports.

The district’s guidance around social distancing was more vague. Students will be kept three feet apart when possible, but because of class sizes and space, the school district acknowledges that won’t be possible in all situations. This is a change from last year, when the district still required six feet of distance.

Still, in a letter to parents, officials emphasized that the “best, safest place for our students to learn is in the classroom, and we are looking forward to welcoming your children back to full in-person learning five days a week.”

District officials are pushing full-time in-person instruction because so many students struggled with remote learning during the past school year. And many parents are desperate to have their children back in schools, especially as they are required to go into work.

But some parents tell WBEZ they will resist returning their children until they can be vaccinated. Currently, only children 12 and older can get the shot. Approval of a COVID-19 vaccine for younger children is expected sometime this fall or winter.

Some parents are like Miller. They don’t trust the school system to maintain all the safety protocols needed to keep their children safe. Others have children with medical conditions that put them at some risk, but perhaps not severe enough to qualify for the virtual academy.

Some parents argue that the eligibility guidelines for the virtual academy are too narrow and leave many students in a grey area. The school district lists 16 serious conditions, such as leukemia and cystic fibrosis, that make students automatically eligible for the virtual school.

It also lists nine other conditions, such as asthma and diabetes, that could make students eligible for the virtual program, but only if their attendance is below 75%. The deadline to apply was recently extended to Aug. 6.

A mother named Tanya said her 9-year-old son has several serious medical issues. She declined to provide details, but said he has been in and out of the hospital for much of his early life. Her husband also has health issues and, while he got vaccinated, tests show that he did not build up antibodies against COVID-19.

One of her son’s conditions could make him eligible for the virtual academy, but he has good attendance so she is worried he won’t get in.

If he doesn’t, she plans to keep him at home. But she has to work so she can’t homeschool him.

“I feel that my only option is I’m not going to send him and he’s going to be truant,” said Tanya, who didn’t want her last name used. “We will read lots of books at home. We will do math. We will do the science stuff, but I’m not going to send him in.”

Tanya said as soon as her son is fully vaccinated, she will be happy to send him back. She just needs him in remote schooling for a little more time.

“So, let’s say he got in [to the virtual academy], and he got a vaccine at the beginning of September, he would be able to go back to his regular school by the end of the quarter,” she said.

Tanya said she is concerned that a number of parents are just like her. If there is no remote option, they will just pull their children out of school and they will disappear.

Other parents say they don’t trust the school system to keep their children safe because of historical problems.

Miller said she was one of 10 Black parents with children at South Side schools on a call recently. Only one said they felt OK about sending their children back to school full time. Those children attend a charter school.

Miller said some parents at traditionally under-resourced schools don’t believe district officials when they said there will be good ventilation in their old school buildings or that they will pay attention to keeping schools clean and sanitized. She said the distrust goes back before COVID.

“I don’t think that the schools in our neighborhoods are adequately equipped to handle everything that is going on,” Miller said. “COVID is still a very scary issue and they also have this new delta variant that’s come out.”

Parents whose children attend schools in affluent areas might not understand the concerns, she added. She believes those schools get problems addressed quickly, unlike schools in poor neighborhoods where she says issues around maintenance are left to fester.

Another mother, Sarah, said her children go to a school in a more well-off community, yet she also has concerns. Sarah did not want her last name used because her husband is a CPS teacher.

She said her children’s school is relatively crowded with at least 25 students in each class.

“We’re in a very fortunate school and even then, there’s absolutely no way that the children can be three feet apart in the classroom or in the hallways or in the lunchroom,” she said.

She has been homeschooling her children and will continue to do so until they are vaccinated. But she’s frustrated because last year the school system told parents they could maintain their place in magnet or selective schools, even if they chose to homeschool. But this year, as far as she knows, they will lose their seats.

“My children will be very, very upset about that,” she said.

However, Sarah, unlike other parents, said she knows she is privileged to be able to homeschool her children. Other families who aren’t ready to send their children back say they feel left without any options at all.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.