Illustration by Mell Montezuma

Op-Ed: Business As Usual at CPS

Chicago Public Schools have missed an opportunity to better the learning environment by attempting to continue operating as normal amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers have been the ones on the ground having to wrestle care out of a system committed to ranking and filing students and teachers. In a city where there is one police officer budgeted for every 228 residents, there is only one social worker budgeted for around 1,000 students. After teaching at CPS schools for almost a decade, and interviewing current teachers, it’s clear that teachers in CPS are still working to fill those gaps in care for students and continue to demand a massive change in CPS budget priorities as they have been for quite some time. 

Nurses and social workers in every school were primary demands of the 2019 teachers strike. Unfortunately, teachers’ priorities were pushed to the side and the agreement reached by CPS and CTU leadership to end the strike left these demands as mere promises. As teachers and communities were recovering from the strike, the pandemic hit in March 2020. COVID-19 disrupted everyone’s business as usual. Educators and students transformed our conceptions of schooling. In response, CPS systemically standardized “distance learning” to “remote learning,” where teachers and students were expected to maintain the same standards as in the school building. 

“Suddenly it wasn’t all about the testing. We could teach just to teach, it was a totally different atmosphere,” said Dani, a pre-K teacher, about the first phases of remote learning. For the first time, school transcended the walls of the building. Educators had to think a little more creatively. In March 2020, teachers entered into “distance learning” with more autonomy in their curriculum and assessment than ever before. With little to no resources and support, teachers were the ones tasked with designing and redesigning, again and again, the lessons and strategies to reach and connect with young people all across the city. 

Learning took place in an organic way, and as teachers and students we were all creating brand new structures of learning together. “One thing about remote, if you don’t engage them, you lost them. This made you think carefully about your lesson to ensure it was worthwhile. We cut out the unnecessary.” Dani said.  

“Virtually, we ensured everything was relevant,” a teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity said. Young people and teachers were able to be responsive to individual and collective needs when establishing the schedule together at the start of distance learning. When the pandemic canceled plans for 2020 annual standardized testing, teachers and students saw the possibility of a system of true transformation and care on the horizon. 

Soon after a rhythm in learning was created, CPS began to tighten the reins, mandating minutes per academic content area. Teachers were told to schedule the school day to mimic a “normal” school day. Teachers were required to allocate significantly less time to the increasingly important mental and social emotional learning of their students and more time teaching to the test. Many teachers spoke about the inequity of grading students during a pandemic. District although many students did not have a home, internet or device to access school. As communities began to expand their ideas of schooling, CPS doubled down on “normal” punitive grading as their priority during the pandemic. Teachers and community members realized school was no longer defined by the school walls as CPS gradually pushed everyone back into the building.

As the 2021 school year crept closer, kids were being incentivized to return in person for “optional” standardized testing and gradually transitioned students back to the school building for hybrid learning plans. It wasn’t long before CPS began to threaten educators (by locking them out of their Google accounts) back into the buildings prior to any safety agreements with CTU. Teachers did not feel safe and many school communities voiced their concerns about the unsafe plans to reopen schools. Despite this fight, CTU reached an agreement with CPS, ending the threat of another teacher strike and forcing nearly all teachers back into the buildings, many prior to full vaccination. 

Why was remote learning removed as an option? We had an opportunity to radically change the old system. “What about the kids who are bullied? Kids who have experienced racism?” Dani asked. Laura, a sixth-grade CPS teacher, said, “Racism, homophobia, anti immigrant, etc. … many kids felt safer at home.” This one-size-fits-all approach, to mandate in-person learning, was not created to serve neurodivergent kids, teachers who are immunocompromised, or high schoolers who need to work during the day to support their family. This plan is not to do what is best for all teachers and students, this is a mandated in person learning plan to uphold the same systems that have always existed in CPS. If we want different results in an ever-evolving world, we have to move forward differently.  

The start of the 2021-2022 school year was like no other before. CPS mandated in-person learning for teachers and students during the ongoing pandemic. For example, second grade students had never routinely learned in a school building before. “This year has been the most surreal I have ever experienced,” one fourth-grade teacher said. “Tell me why, on the first day of school, I had a network observer.” Principals and assistant principals answer directly to network chiefs, who primarily come to “underperforming” schools to observe teachers and students.  

The transition back to in-person learning has been riddled with instances of the district pushing pacing of standardized curriculum and testing on teachers and students. CPS continues to invest in the “curriculum-industrial complex,” both creating the problem of learning loss and deeming themselves the only solution. As Dani said, “We haven’t got to small group work in person this year because the way they did the schedule, we are constantly moving and testing kids. We are not getting through the curriculum because we have to do more mandated testing.” 

Teachers have also been tasked with allocating a large amount of time toward enforcing physical safety measures such as mask wearing and distancing. “We have to spend so much time on masks and distancing,” Dani said. I cannot even express how difficult it is with Pre-K and Kindergarten. … Kids are supposed to be able to have sensory experiences, now we are teaching them to get away from each other. Half of our day is spent on that. Where is the teaching?”

In addition to the curricular stress, the physical and mental health of our students and staff is also an ever-looming stressor. From teachers being forced to teach from their classroom while their whole class is remote to the fact that COVID-19 sick days were taken away, teachers are feeling the harm. “This is the worst profession, I feel safer at Jewel. Where is the support when we are doing this in a pandemic?” Dani said. 

Since mandated in-person learning began, “how do we actually tune into how we are feeling?” Laura said. “We have had such a traumatic year. Kids are struggling with engagement because their systems are overwhelmed. We are not giving them the space they need. We need time and space.”  

“We are expected to be so much more [than teachers],” the fourth-grade teacher said. “This past week we did data analysis of our gradebook and Star 360 data analysis, when I could be doing so many better things with my time to support children.” It is time we stop seeing teachers and students as data points and tertiary stakeholders in education. CPS could use the $135 million for the Skyline Curriculum, or the $11 million budgeted for CPD officers to patrol schools, on investing directly in teachers and students to transform the system. 

The educational-industrial complex, which includes the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) Reach assessments, NWEA MAP Assessments, SAT and the Follett for Aspen Grading and Data Tracking, have set CPS priorities for far too long. These backward priorities keep us fighting one another for that elusive “top spot.” Teachers are given the impossible task of helping everyone to succeed in a system that is designed for people to fail. A return to business as usual with mandated in-person learning is also a return to the racial and economic learning gaps that CPS produces year after year.  Hilario, a special education teacher said, “The district really missed an opportunity to transform the education system.”

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Jenna Forton is a former CPS Teacher and writer. This is her first time contributing to the Weekly.

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