To the Editor:

“Ms. Kibblewhite?! Missssss KIBBBLEWHITE?!!” It was unmistakably Kiya’s voice. But, instead of her voice sounding across my classroom when I didn’t respond to her raised hand sufficiently fast, it was coming through my computer speakers. I smiled. It was so good to hear her … And to be able to respond. “Kiya? Yes! I’m here! I’m here! I just stepped away from my computer.” Without missing a beat, Kiya launched into a detailed question about my virtual office hours and our upcoming Google Meets class. I have never been more glad to answer.

This has suddenly become the new “normal” for many teachers across America and the world. For thousands across this state and for teachers in Chicago Public Schools, the third largest district in the nation serving 350,000 children, connecting with our students has been a challenging and deeply concerning process. But connection is only the first step, as we also need to figure out how to provide ongoing support for our students and maintain meaningful communication. Aside from the real and significant fears of lost instructional time, how do we help sustain our communities during these times?

This week, however, I taught. They weren’t perfect lessons and not all of my students logged in, but after weeks of active concern and engaged responses, organizing, telephone calls and messages, emails, etc., I gathered with about 30 of my students on Google Meets. We discussed ideas, laughed together, and once again experienced something that exceeds the exchange of instructional content: meaningful communication and, by extension, ever vital community. My students joined in on cell phones, devices they owned, and devices that were lent to them as part of CPS’ massive endeavor to get technology to all children in need across our city. Students who seldom volunteered an answer in class were newly active in our chat box. Kiya was there, challenging the thinking of her peers, ensuring that everyone’s mic was muted at the appropriate time, and holding us all accountable, just as she did in our physical class.

When Gov. Pritzer announced that schools will remain shuttered for the remainder of the school year, I learned that indeed my current students will never complete our Microbiome Lab, or countless other activities and lessons. But I didn’t cry, as I imagined I would if this necessary decree came to pass. My students are remarkable young people, full of great promise and the adaptability of youth. There is hope in them.

Of course there will be more tears. I think about the gross systemic inequities that fund our Chicago schools and determine who has access to learning and who does not, or what these racial and income-based inequities will mean for this city’s Black and Brown children next year. For these and so many other reasons, I feel deep and constant sorrow and rage. But hope need not exist in a vacuum. Despite this very sad and unsurprising news from the governor, I have hope.

We know much more about how to address the many challenges connected with COVID-19 two weeks ago, much more, too, about what we need to do differently next year and beyond. Kiya knows that I am here for her, and she knows how to reach me if she has a question or needs help. I also feel hope and comfort knowing that although the ways in which we form our communities have changed, we — families, students, educators and school staff alike — will continue forward through this together.

Jessica Kibblewhite

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