Why aren’t kids coming to school? A response to Dan Petro and the Chicago Tribune

On Friday, in the Pioneer Press/local news section of the paper, the Chicago Tribune reported that “Less than 25% of the 12,000 students at District 214 in Arlington Heights choose to attend classes in-person, despite calls to ‘open schools’.”

The article was, however, far from the “analysis” it purported to be.  The author cites statistics on the low attendance — but without the breakdown that would reveal the stark differences between Hersey and Prospect, on the one hand (34% and 47%, respectively, based on the schools’ dashboard info and its Illinois Report Card enrollments), and the remaining schools — as low as 20% at Buffalo Grove and Wheeling.

He quote my comments at the school board meeting:

“The return to school process – you gave families a week,” said Elizabeth Bauer, a parent and school board candidate in the April election. “You sent an email out once. Only at Prospect High School did the principal send out a reminder, and you could tell there was a major, major difference. Prospect kids responded far more than anybody else.”

But then he uncritically reports Schuler’s defense:

Schuler told Pioneer Press in an email that: “We notified all parents of our third-quarter plans in December by way of our regular email updates to parents and guardians and offered a survey through our student information system about in-person learning for the third quarter.”

He then quotes board president Dan Petro, based on a phone interview:

In a phone interview with Pioneer Press after the Jan. 21 school board meeting, board President Dan Petro said there has been what he called “a handful of the same parents” who have complained and called on district officials to open schools completely and bring all students back.

He said those parents are looking for the district “to make everything normal, which we obviously can’t do.”

“The fact that 80% of parents don’t think they want their kids back in school (in person) tells you the majority of the community is concerned about COVID-19, as the school board is,” said Petro.

Now, it is true that only a “handful” of parents have spoken at recent board meetings.  But I have never called for “mak[ing] everything normal.”  I have continually affirmed that I support the measures being taken in the Archdiocese of Chicago schools, where my youngest son is in attendance.  And, to be honest, I’m not sure what Petro means by his claim that we want to “bring all students back,” given that the school district officially denies the existence of waitlists preventing students from attending in-person.

Nonetheless, Petro is being disingenuous when he claims that the 80% of students staying at home, are doing so because of fears of covid.  In the first place, at the prior board meeting, he latched onto a single anecdote of a student working during school hours to say that declines in student grades were because students were working to support their families.  Clearly, you can’t believe that students are increasingly taking on jobs out in the community and simultaneously believe that students are being hypercautious and staying at home.

The reality is that, of the families I’ve talked to (either directly, or via Facebook), a small number keep their students at home because someone in the household is immunocompromised.  Far more parents report that their students prefer to stay at home because, in a “death spiral” type of situation, their classrooms are empty.  Their peers are taking advantage of remote learning to chat on Discord or to cheat — sorry, collaborate — on tests.  They engage in battles with their students (because the particular Facebook group consists of re-opening supporters) or let their older students win because, in the end, the classroom environment is so problematic.  Students also report that their teachers work remotely in any case, or might as well be doing so, if they only interact with the zoom camera.  (Remember, the school district refuses to share information on the numbers of students with permission to work from home, despite FOIA requests.)   Some parents even report that attendance has declined as students have given up on the classroom situation, and that on test days in particular, students stay home.

Again, recall the wide disparity between Prospect and Wheeling in attendance levels.   And these attendance levels correlate precisely with student performance — the lower a school’s test scores pre-pandemic, the lower their attendance levels now.

Should the school force students to return to school in cases where there are serious medical concerns?  Of course not.  But the schools could be doing a lot more than they are now, both in terms of communicating to families that the available data demonstrates that they not at greater risk by coming to school, and by adjusting the in-class experience to encourage greater attendance.  After all, given that the school district had said previously that they were going to encourage in-person attendance by students who were struggling the prior semester, they themselves acknowledge that boosting in-person attendance will be crucial to improving student learning.

public domain, from https://pixabay.com/photos/classroom-school-education-learning-2093744/.

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