Close for Teaching, Open for Recovery

Bobby Quellos

Public schools cannot be reopened safely during the current wave of the pandemic, but imagine what they could provide if they were repurposed to save lives, not endanger them.

As the United States stares down four hundred thousand deaths from Covid-19, after watching all levels of government fail to contain the pandemic since early last year, the absolute failure to efficiently distribute the vaccine to fight the virus seems unsurprising. Instead it’s sadly the norm of the day. And while the virus surges and experts continue to warn that we are entering into the darkest hours of this pandemic, there is a major push from president-elect Joe Biden to local officials to reopen public schools. 

Under the guise of equity, Chicago Public Schools and the city’s mayor Lori Lightfoot are among those pushing hardest for the reopenings. Together they have put forward an unsafe hybrid reopening plan and reopened schools even as the mayor has extended stay-at-home orders. While the United States is enduring over four thousand related Covid-19 deaths a day and Chicago’s Covid positivity rate sits above 10 percent, CPS is beginning to lock out teachers who refuse to comply with the reopening plan, the very teachers that serve the communities CPS professes its concern for. 

Alleviating the crisis of the pandemic will require bold solutions and new visions not on offer in the atrophied heights of city hall and DC. Instead of forcing teachers and students back into unsafe buildings supposedly due to concern over the dubious concept of “learning loss,” neighborhood schools should become a hub for food distribution, supplies, and clothing for those in need. School parking lots could become testing sites for all and distribution points for vaccination. In short, schools should be the epicenter of the recovery.

Just last week I discussed with a city employee her frustration due to the lack of response from city hall or CPS to allocate public space for a Covid-19 testing lab ready and willing to mobilize in her community. This same community has relied heavily on a number of mutual aid projects and served as both the recipients and distributors of much-needed relief in place of the inadequate federal or local response to this crisis. 

Schools should be the epicenter of the recovery.

Imagine the energy and initiative put into mutual aid being bolstered by local government. Instead of teachers being locked out of their online access to their classroom for not teaching inside the schools, imagine schools instead becoming the place community members go when facing a lack of wifi access or proper computer equipment. Instead of being a place that supplies teachers masks to teach in-person, what if schools become an access point for masks to the community along with relief programs, rental and unemployment assistance, and groceries? What if schools were centers for checking-in on the health of neighbors? This recovery could be so much more. Instead Chicagoans have been forced to endure a reopening plan that will lead to more infections and death.

The lack of imagination in the CPS plan, which requires teachers to simultaneously teach students in the classroom and those learning remotely, was developed without input from teachers, principals, staff, or parents. That isn’t an accident. As a result of this undemocratic plan, Chicago’s democratically elected local school councils, made up of the very people whose voices were left out of the plan, are speaking up. A letter from the LSC at Brentano Math & Science Academy states, “We cannot reopen this way now; when it is more dangerous than ever, when we are so close to the end. We will stay apart, to guide this school and care for its children, until we can return together in celebration and in mourning.” On the first day of reopening classes over fifty LSCs have already put forward similar appeals to Mayor Lightfoot and the CPS Board of Education.

The problem with the reopening plan doesn’t just rest in the unrealistic expectations thrust upon the teachers. The plan promises adequate ventilation against the airborne virus, but the CPS building stock is an amalgamation of designs that span a hundred-plus years with mechanical systems to match. The conversation CPS is selling parents, teachers, and staff about improving air filtration in buildings during Covid-19 is a nonstarter. A few schools throughout the district have state-of-the-art HVAC equipment, but even the most environmentally advanced of those systems are still designed with economy in mind, not pandemics. 

In a great many more buildings, window A/C units crank on hot days, ventilation is poor at best, and they rely on aged boilers that should have been replaced years ago. But the district is hiding these conditions behind reports that don’t address the issue at hand, relying instead on the public’s understandable lack of knowledge regarding the complexity of modern ventilation systems to usher teachers and students back into unsafe buildings.

CPS’ capital budget has never been adequate to properly maintain its building stock and has been subject to years of austerity, leaving a large number of school buildings with antiquated mechanical systems. Those outmoded systems exist in far greater numbers in Chicago’s Black and brown neighborhoods, which are being ravaged by Covid-19. Any idea that “enhanced filtration” will be a line of defense against Covid-19 is a farce. In fact, many teachers are arriving in classrooms only to find that the promised air purifiers are undersized for the classrooms they’re to serve. 

Multitudes are pushing to take on this pandemic in a different way.

Both Mayor Lightfoot and CPS have had ample opportunity to actually address this pandemic in an equitable and safe way but have continuously failed to do so. A plan could have been developed and implemented that meets the needs of families. Improvements to remote learning could have been prioritized through the summer. Instead Chicagoans have been witness to months wasted on planning for a school reopening last fall even when the Chicago Department of Public Health was warning of a second wave—and a repeat of that same blunder with the current reopening plan.

We are suffering under the thumb of a free-market-oriented management class whose worldview seems to require an utter lack of imagination to function, and it’s hamstringing any recovery.  Those in charge have floundered to provide a solution to get us safely to the other side of this pandemic. However, there is resistance and hope: from scientists, labor unions, mutual aid organizations, and LSCs—multitudes are pushing to take on this pandemic in a different way. 

There has been a flourishing of organizing from below that has tirelessly tried to protect each other. It’s time we approach the needs of our students, teachers, and neighborhoods with the respect and creativity they deserve. That starts not by forcing them into life-threatening situations, but rather by making schools the epicenter of a dignified Covid recovery.

Bobby Quellos is a Chicago-based lefty architect, a member of 33rd Ward Working Families and parent of a CPS student.