Some 50 parents protested alongside their children outside of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools on Feb. 25, demanding an immediate resumption of in-person learning for older grades.
Outside of nursery school, kindergarten and 1st and 2nd graders, Lab School students have been learning remotely since last March. Students in the Lower School grades, 3rd through 5th, are due to come back with 5 feet of social distancing on March 29, with students returning to the Middle and High schools returning on a hybrid model.
But parents, observing that other Chicago private schools have operated in-school learning for all grades since the beginning of the academic year in the fall, say the delayed timeline is unacceptable, especially given that Lab School teachers have been vaccinated as Phase 1b workers. Hundreds of parents have signed an online petition calling for students' return.
Dr. K. Sarah Hoehn, an intensive care unit physician at the Comer Children's Hospital, said that the university took vaccines away from South Siders in order to vaccinate all the Lab School teachers. (In an email to the Herald after publication, Hoehn clarified that she intended to communicate that "the university deployed a share of its vaccines to vaccinate all the Lab School teachers, prioritizing them so that we could safely return to in-person school.")
"The teachers had realistic reasons to not want to go before, but now they don't," she said at the protest. "There's literally no reason. So we've got to get the children back to school."
After returning on March 29, Lab plans to continue in-person education this fall, after summer break.
"The past week has been extraordinarily difficult for our entire community, especially the families and children at the Lower School," wrote Interim Director David W. Magill to the Lab community in a recent email acknowledging "deep disappointment and frustration" but promising that the administration remains focused on getting students back in school.
He blamed release of new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the abandonment of February plans to return Lower School students to campus, as well as the CDC's placement of Chicago in a "high transmission red" zone on Feb. 12.
As it stands now, Magill said Chicago is moving towards the CDC's "moderate transmission yellow zone" in the case metric.
"With help from (UCMC epidemiologist) Dr. Emily Landon and other experts, we've been successful in bringing back students at the university and Lab for in-person instruction and remain confident in the medical guidance that 5-feet social distancing along with masking, hand-washing, improved ventilation, easily accessible testing for symptomatic individuals, and enhanced cleaning procedures is appropriate for children through grade 5," he wrote.
"Throughout this pandemic, Lab has taken a cautious approach toward in-person education based upon the careful guidance of medical, health, and education experts as well as City, State and CDC guidelines. We regularly evaluate new data and information to make decisions that we believe are best for our entire Lab community. We have a robust plan and are working with the Faculty Association, which is in favor of 5-foot social distancing now that teachers are fully vaccinated, for the resumption of in-person learning for Grades 3–5."
Dr. Nausheen Zaidi, a physician at Advocate Health Care in the south suburbs, said at the protest that Lab School administrators, in not returning older students to in-person instruction in the fall, were "taking advantage that (parents) will continue to stay silent."
"I think it's more than past time that they need to start all of us, the whole school, back in person now," she said. "Not a month from now, not in the fall."
Parents additionally said their children are being negatively affected by remote education both academically and emotionally.
Paul Cheney, a U. of C. history professor, has 17- and 14-year-olds at Lab. He said the older son has senioritis and that his younger son, cut off from sports and his friends, is encountering difficulties with Zoom learning.
"He was in CPS, and CPS was not doing a good job at all with digital learning, so we brought him back to Lab in the expectation that they would be able to do better than CPS, but they've done no better," Cheney said. "My wife teaches at an independent school; they've been in hybrid learning since November. Lab has not even started. They say they've been planning to start, but there've been lots of fits and starts."
Cheney said he calculated the amount of time his younger son will be in school under Lab's hybrid learning plan: 14 in-person days from March 29 through the end of this academic year.
He said neither the Lab teachers' union, nor the Lab administration nor the university administration will talk to parents as to why learning has been delayed.
"They don't want to be directly accountable to the parents, because I think that they know that we're angry, and also they might face some uncomfortable questions," he said. "They prefer to do things on their own terms."
Dr. Tara Henderson, a UCMC pediatric oncologist, said that children in the hospital do not get sick from COVID-19; last year in the United States, she said, there were fewer deaths from COVID-19 among children than there were the year before from influenza.
During the 2019-2020 flu season, 188 children under 17 died of influenza, according to data from the CDC. A compilation of state-level data from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association found that 179 children died of COVID-19 between March 1, 2020, and the end of the year. Both of those figures, however, are subject to potential underreporting. Since the beginning of 2021, the number of cumulative child deaths has risen to 256.
Henderson said children are experiencing serious psychological problems brought on by the pandemic.
"Psychological trauma increases chronic health conditions in adults and can change length of life," she said. "We have to think about when we send out kids into school, is it going to be safe? We have lots of factors saying that we think that it is."
Henderson brought up a CDC study from Wisconsin that showed that the the COVID-19 incidence among students and staff in schools with high mask-wearing was lower than in the counties overall. She expressed pride that the U. of C. put teachers first in vaccinating, and she cited a preprint in The Lancet which found that vaccination prevents against the spread itself of COVID-19.
"Our teachers are safe," she said. "The only thing that's unsafe here is keeping the school closed."
This story has been updated with a comment from Dr. K. Sarah Hoehn clarifying her remarks at the protest, and further context for the number of child deaths from influenza and COVID-19.