On Saturday, October 17, School Board President Dan Petro and Vice President Bill Dussling published a letter to the editor in the Daily Herald, defending their decisions surrounding school closures and the very limited nature of the schools’ subsequent reopening. That letter, while it attempts to be conciliatory, is nonetheless misleading in its statements.
Specifically, they start by praising the passion of “parents, students and other stakeholders,” which, they say, “has enabled District 214 to stake a claim as one of the nation’s most innovative and effective districts in preparing students for success beyond graduation.” Right away, this sets of alarm bells, though admittedly that’s my pet peeve of being overly focused on staking claims of “being the best” vs. meeting students’ needs, including those at risk of falling through the cracks. At any rate, Petro and Dussling then use this to segue into the calls of parents to return to in-person school, “on any given day without restriction” — but, in fact, what parents are actually calling for is the ability of their children to return to school; they do not reject other restrictions as are appropriate for public health purposes. I certainly believe the large majority of those calling for a 5-day-a-week school re-opening are perfectly willing to send their kids with face masks, abide by limits on gatherings, accept restrictions on school meals, and so on.
But they have seen, as perhaps Petro and Dussling have not, the harm that remote schooling is causing, both in terms of the students’ mental health and their academic learning — not with respect to all students, some of whom are perfectly happy to log on at home and gather with friends remotely or outside of school and are perfectly able to focus on their lessons in the remote format, but certainly with respect to a great many, who struggle without personal connections and without a classroom environment to keep them focused and on-track. In some cases, they face home situations which make at-home learning a near-impossibility.
Petro and Dussling then claim that their actions are a matter of “do[ing] the best we can to go about our lives while exercising appropriate care as outlined by science and public health professionals.” But their decision to keep schools closed, first, and now only very partially to re-open them, is not a matter of “exercising appropriate care.” District Superintendent David Schuler acknowledged as much at the August board meeting, that a key motivator was not public health, but fear of lawsuits. What’s more, neither the administration nor the school board has provided any documentation of their basis for the metrics they have established for meeting stages in re-opening, even as, with respect to Chicago, local news outlets reported that “[Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady] said Chicago students who have returned to parochial and private school classrooms have a lower rate of COVID-19 than what has been detected among children who have not been learning in-person.”
What’s more, Petro and Dussling claim that the “Return to School” plan “was debated and approved by the Board of Education at a public hearing on Aug. 13, 2020. Not in secret.” This is, at best, half-true. The plan was, indeed, formally approved at a public meeting on that date. However, a week prior, on August 5, the plan was presented by the administration to the public as a “done deal,” not merely as an option for the board to consider. Parents who were at the meeting (having been alerted through their social networks that something was up) reported a professionally produced video that suggested as much. And the board’s questions prior to their eventual 6-1 vote cannot reasonably be called a “debate,” but had the apparent objective of eliciting the superintendent’s affirmation that remote learning was the best possible option, and that possible difficulties were being remedied. Reviewing the minutes, I find “board discussion” comments such as “although everyone is impatient, the district administration should be applauded for their efforts” and a call for “support from the parents, staff and community” for the district and Board.
Finally, note what Petro and Dussling do not say: they do not provide any sense of urgency on their own part with respect to full reopening. This is merely a concern of some (misguided) impassioned parents, who miss their children’s extracurricular activities. And they do not provide any comments about a path forward towards increasing the number of days that students are able to return to campus.