Kenwood lining up

Kenwood Academy students line up to enter their building, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave., Wednesday, Jan. 12

Chicago Public Schools students returned to their classrooms on Wednesday, Jan. 12, after the Chicago Teachers Union voted to end a five-day work stoppage over COVID-19 safety issues during the omicron surge.

A deal got reached: there's a plan for some random sampling at schools with low enrollment in the testing program and a more stringent requirement for schools to flip to remote learning on metrics.

Per December data collected from Chalkbeat, that would mean there will be random COVID-19 testing at three local schools that have a less-than-10% opt-in rate of weekly testing: Reavis Elementary, 834 E. 50th St., Bret Harte Elementary, 1556 E. 56th St., and Kenwood Academy, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave.

But students and staff are still going to school in the phase of the pandemic with the most-ever community spread of COVID-19.

“Terrible,” one teenage boy said outside of the high school when asked how he felt about going back.

Stanaia Peat, who lives in Woodlawn, said several of her Kenwood classmates are lackadaisical about properly wearing masks and that many teachers neglect to remind them to pull them over their noses.

"We can try to be safe, but I don't think it's going to work," she said, supposing she'll have to do remote learning at one point or another.

Marjorie Howard, a Kenwood parent and Hyde Parker, also had an issue with mask-wearing at Kenwood: she heard from her daughter that teachers often took theirs off to talk to one another.

Nevertheless, she feels like she will be safe at the school. "I feel like if they put their foot down and make sure the kids keep their masks on and they keep their masks on, it will work out fine," she said.

Taylor Jackson, who lives in Roseland, feels like students' opinions and needs were not taken into consideration during this whole ordeal.

"It's understandable, but at the same time, it's like, 'What about us?'" she said.

She is vaccinated but worries about getting a breakthrough infection. But she did not want to go home and does not like remote learning, either.

As a senior, Jackson wants to be back in the school building, but she conceded that she is suffering from senioritis at this point in her high school career. Remote learning would only exacerbate her malaise. "I just want everything to be safe and precautions to be put in place," she said.

She is, however, looking for the hallmarks of her last semester of high school, like prom and graduation.

"That's the other thing," she said. "I don't want my senior year to be taken away. And I'm not going to say I don't care, because I definitely do care, but there's just a lot going on right now."

At Ray School, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave., Twana Hatchett said she was fine having her kindergartner back in the classroom.

“My baby knows to wear masks. He's adamant about it,” she said. “So he should be good, as long as he's sanitizing. If they're making sure that they sanitize as you know, before lunch and after lunch and in between bathroom breaks and stuff like that, he should be OK.”

“I know my child will, but some people don't teach their kids the same thing,” she said. “And it's just like a lot of people out in the world right now. Adults, they're not wearing it, you know.”

Hatchett, a CTA worker, knows this from experience.

“We're not allowed to enforce the mask rule,” she said. “So if individuals get on the train, and they don't have on the mask, we can only make a request over the intercom. But we cannot approach them and say, ‘Where's your mask?’ I try to offer masks to many individuals, but the ones that don't want to wear them will tell you that I cannot make them, it is their ‘right.’

“And they're not going to wear a mask, right? And there's nothing I can do. So throughout the pandemic, I have been sick and getting my family sick because of this.”

Hatchett’s son got sick with his entire pre-kindergarten class at one point. If she had the option, she would have him do remote learning again, supposing it’s safer, even though she works and remote learning for early childhood students has been shown to have significant pitfalls.

"Their attention span is a little short, so it's harder to get them to stay at the computer," she said. Hatchett ended up buying a number of educational tools on her own at one point and making time to teach him herself when her job gave her a couple of months to stay home; she said she taught him a lot of the things he already knows.

Kristen Finley, a teacher at Bret Harte, was only sending her 1st grader back on Wednesday because her 5th grader's class is quarantined — she assumes someone must have tested positive on the Monday or Tuesday after Christmas break that they were back in class.

"I think it's a terrible idea," said one grandfather doing child care with his wife for his daughter, who is recuperating after an injury. "We’re over 60. This is putting our health at risk as well as other people at risk mentally. As I understand it, I don't think that there's adequate testing. I don't think there's adequate social distancing. I think it's generally unsafe and a bad idea."

When CTU went on strike for seven days in 2012, it was over a contract that eventually got teachers pay raises, an evaluation system partly based on student performance as measured by standardized tests and a guarantee that any of their number who got laid off would get preference to be rehired.

After the teachers struck for 11 days in 2019, they got guarantees of a full-time nurse and social worker in each school by 2023 and a 16% raise over five years for teachers, with $5 million more for veteran teachers.

These five missed days were technically a work stoppage, not a strike; Howard, the Kenwood mother, called relations between Mayor Lori Lightfoot, CPS and the union "a mess."

"They should have gotten all this stuff together before now," she said. "This last-minute fight to make this work, this is something they should have been aware of way ahead of time.

"In terms of the mayor, I'm not for her right now," she continued. "I think at one point everybody thought she was going to do a good job, but in the end, she's really just dropping the ball."

The latest CTU-CPS quandary only reinforces that impression. "There was no preparation for this," Howard said, further mentioning the city's rising violent crime.

"I think she just needs to go and sit down now," she said. "At one point I was for her, but I started seeing different things happen. Especially with the violence. Not getting that under control, I don't understand that."

Asked if she had anything else to add at the end of her interview, Jackson, the Kenwood senior, said, "I wish Lori would think about us, too."

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