As Illinois school districts release their reopening plans for the fall, the Tribune asked teachers, social workers and other school staff this question: What are your concerns about the upcoming school year?
Here’s what they said. Responses have been edited for space and clarity.
“I work in the Little Village area, which got hit really hard with COVID-19 because the parents are essential workers. … These families suffered greatly due to the symptoms of the illness, COVID-19-related deaths in the family, loss of income, and the inability to pay bills/rent. Most did not qualify for unemployment due to immigration status. As a result, I spent many hours of my days talking to parents on the phone and feeling utterly helpless. I believe we must rely on science, not on the hope that everything will be OK. My students and their families are not statistics.”
— Melony Espinoza is a social worker at Lázaro Cárdenas Elementary School.
“What if a student or educator dies? Or what if a 14-year-old comes to school with COVID and is asymptomatic, passes it on to his best friend, and kills his best friend’s mom? Or his best friend’s little sister who has a compromised immune system? Will schools be provided with the resources they need to provide extra social workers and counselors to help students and staff navigate that unimaginable trauma? Will districts have the resources they need to provide teachers with professional development in areas such as trauma-informed practices and social emotional learning? … This is an opportunity to revolutionize education, and to do something right by finally addressing the aforementioned inequities in a systemic way. But that won’t happen under the ‘leadership’ of an administration that continuously threatens to cut funding from already underfunded schools.”
— Lindsey L. Jensen is a 12th grade English teacher at Dwight Township High School in Dwight, and 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year.
“Safety is my singular concern, full stop. Student achievement, the degrees to which my students are falling behind their peers, the degrees to which my students are demonstrating mastery of any skill or standard, and many more issues that are genuinely important to students, families, and me during ordinary times are all things that do not keep me awake at night. I am sleepless because I fear for the health of students, faculty, staff and for the health of all of our respective families to whom we would return after a school day. I am sleepless because of the burden of guilt and sorrow that my colleagues and I would assume if COVID-related sickness or death occurred because my classroom or my school or one of my busses was a vector for this invisible disease. I am sleepless because the justifications for full, half, or partial in-person learning do not, to me, counterbalance any modicum of risk of fatality or life-long health complications, however slight the chances and however few the affected.”
— Jason Jaffe is the social studies department chair at Glenbard East High School in Lombard.
“I appreciate the preliminary plan CPS has come up with. I honestly think it is one of the best I have seen across our nation. I believe Janice Jackson and the rest of CPS leaders are creating the best possible solution, with students’ and teachers’ best interest at heart. I like the idea of pods making class sizes smaller to increase social distancing. I also like the idea of hybrid learning. The plan is a good start, but I believe there are more kinks that need to be combed through. I believe more structure needs to be in place in regards to the curriculum. Teachers across the district, w’ere scrambling for resources for remote learning, but I believe we need an appropriate accessible online platform.”
— Kimyada Clanton is a Chicago Public Schools kindergarten teacher.
“They released this plan with little to no protection for everyone. They’ve been saying these big numbers, like 40,000 wipes for 25,000 teachers, which really means one to two wipes per person. Maybe each school will get one extra custodian. And they’re already not given the right amount of supplies for the custodians. I think it’s absurd that pre-K students and cluster students will be in person; it’s almost impossible to separate them. There are also three to four special ed assistants in each class. There’s no way to social distance. Also, how are they going to handle air ventilation? All of these factors together, it will just guarantee people will get infected. And If one person gets sick, that’s it. Honestly, blood is on CPS’ hands if that happens.”
— Linda Perales is a special education teacher at Corkery Elementary School.
“What people don’t realize, outside of actual classroom instruction, is there is a huge nurturing portion of pre-K that outsiders normally aren’t privy to. There are comforting hugs that are exchanged at the beginning of the year that we won’t be able to give our students in order to reassure them that things will be OK when their parents leave. So much of the first weeks of school is built on gaining a young child’s trust, and how can we successfully do that when a lot of how we teach is through our facial affect, which will be covered by a mask. … What CPS is asking of us is not going to be a positive learning experience. Pre-K students are also on a five-day-a-week schedule. When will our rooms be cleaned and sanitized? Pre-K rooms are notoriously known for being petri dishes. I am not equipped to handle sanitizing a room, especially under these circumstances. Some schools barely have soap dispensers, so how could we possibly ward off COVID-19? I’m scared. I want to do my job, but I don’t want to die. “
— Angela B. Wooten is a pre-K teacher at George Manierre Elementary School.
“I hear many people express concern that students will be behind academically and behind in social emotional skills. Behind who? All of the other students who haven’t been able to have a normal school experience because of this virus? Behind the arbitrary benchmarks we have set for them? I have spoken with teachers who have had students miss as much as a year of school due to illness. These teachers have said these students recovered and became successful adults despite their missed time in school. These students who are missing school right now will move past this experience and may even benefit from experiencing this unusual time in history. The greatest education in the world will mean nothing to our students if they are dead.”
— Angela Grimmer is a music and orchestra teacher at Carbondale Elementary School.
“Since public education has been underfunded for so long, we are concerned that local school districts will not be able to provide all staff and students proper PPE, supplies for classrooms, sanitation supplies, and plexiglass barriers. Some of the plans that incorporate in-person instruction for the fall do not outline many of the concerns from staff. What will happen if a teacher gets COVID? What happens if a student becomes COVID positive? What will be done about the substitute shortage or the teacher shortage?”
— Lindsey Dickinson is an eighth grade math teacher in Bloomington.
“The concerns are incessant. At this time in the summer it is typical to start having back-to-school dreams; this summer it is more like back-to-school nightmares. While there are numerous logistical issues, the No. 1 fear is that despite schools’ many efforts to protect students and staff, we don’t really know how safe a return to school will be. I have heard a few of my colleagues remark on making sure they have updated their wills before the school year starts. On social media, many mention the concern that the yearbook may have a page dedicated to pandemic deaths. Whether these worries will come to pass is unknown but the fear is very tangible.”
— Benjamin Baer is a social studies teacher at Coal City High School in Coal City.
“I’m worried that even though very little has changed since schools closed in March, children and teachers are being led to believe there’s now a plan that can keep them safe. The new in-person experience isn’t going to be like any school day we’ve ever known, so how is it worth the risk to the lives of children and staff? Have we considered how traumatizing this experience is going to be for all of us? Why is it always educators that are tasked with solving society’s problems?”
— Annette Jaynes is a fourth grade sheltered English teacher at Lewis School in Carbondale.
“My district (Oak Park) has made a wise and brave decision to be remote in the fall. … I am profoundly grateful that I don’t have to worry about colleagues or students dying as a result of the school opening up. … Teachers are afraid to die. All of my private discussion with teachers, that comes up every single time.”
— Aaron Podolner is a physics teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
“I have been teaching 31 years. I really don’t want to go back and was considering retiring early, but it’s not economically possible at this time. I also have health issues, and I am concerned with contracting the virus. They have projected that 70% of the world’s population will contract the virus and 1 in 4 people gathered in large group settings. I believe if we return to the classroom that I might be that 1 in 4 to contract the virus and possibly be the 1 who doesn’t recover.”
— Mildred Walton is a special education resource teacher at George Manierre Elementary School.
“It’s hard to imagine what effective in-person learning will look like for an entire day with social distancing restrictions. Students will likely feel stressed by the rules, and when they feel anxiety, boredom, or frustration — all feelings that I expect will be exacerbated by the strict safety protocols required for in-person learning — students may become emotionally dysregulated. This could result in students acting out or seeking attention through undesired behaviors.”
— Elizabeth Hereford is a kindergarten teacher at South Loop Elementary School.
“Our strategies for building community and sustaining it will have to change. We will no longer be close enough to solve math problems on the same paper, construct something as a team, or even quietly share a thought with a friend. There are also the times when kids want to share something that is a worry, like my grandma has cancer or my dog is really sick. How long will it take for us to reach that level of trust to offer support to one another? The whole dynamic of a classroom will be a challenge that will need an initial plan and then great flexibility as we face the coming months together. But, ultimately kids need each other and us. We will figure this out.”
— Georgina Swanson is a third grade teacher at Whittier Elementary School in Oak Park.
“Who knew the fight in 2019 for equitable digital access, nurses and social workers in every school would be of such pressing need in 2020? Teachers did. Perhaps we should lean in and listen to them a little more.”
— Rick Coppola is a seventh grade language arts teachers at South Loop Elementary School.
“No matter how much effort schools and teachers put into making schools safe, there’s still going to be loss of lives and exposure to a virus that, if it doesn’t kill you, can result in permanent damage to your organs. No amount of loss of learning or socialization is worth this.”
— Rebecca Courtade is a first grade teacher at Stone Academy.
“My concern with opening is that the science does not support it. What has changed since we closed to keep the students safe? Nothing!”
— Mena Pfest is a science teacher at Stone Academy.
“My school has roughly 600 students. Being a physical education teacher (the only PE teacher in my school) can pose some pretty tough challenges. Within the school week, I would have come into contact with every student in the building. When I am not teaching PE, I am sometimes used to cover classes where teachers may have called in sick or may be attending meetings. That puts me into even more classrooms and further exposure to other students. My main concern is, how could I safely continue to teach while being constantly exposed to such a wide variety of students and settings? What would it look like for someone like me? I have a wife who is a teacher who is pregnant with our first child.”
— Louie Ingratta is a physical education teacher at Sherlock Elementary School in Cicero.
“I can’t stay more than 90 minutes at an outdoor restaurant, but my colleagues, my students and I will be expected to spend all day together in school. This simply makes no sense. Our Chicago schools were underfunded, without enough teachers, with class sizes that were too large, and with crumbling facilities before this pandemic hit. … We need a radical reimagining of how public education is funded, is administered, and is defined in order to actually educate the children.”
— Tara Donnelly is an English teacher and learning specialist at Lincoln Park High School.
“Anxiety and frustration will be high and will interfere with learning. It’s not just about reducing numbers in the class and (believing) everything will be fine. The COVID-19 numbers do not support being back at school. Experts predict it will get worse. That means we will likely go back to remote learning again this year. Starting in person only to go back to full-time remote learning will be disruptive and damaging to kids.”
— Peter Barash is a Chicago Public Schools middle school social studies teacher.
“I work in a school for at-risk youth in Chicago’s Southwest Side. My students live near or below the poverty line and endure its effects on their lives every day — violence, food deserts, lack of mental health, lack of medical care. … Who prevents sick people from using the CTA with our students as they travel to and from school? Who checks students for illness when they ride school transportation? Who cares for the students if their family has to work and school is virtual? How do we provide equitable access to education for those students with special needs? Who provides meals for our students when their families cannot?”
— Matthew Patton is the director of diverse learning at Excel Academy Southwest.
“We’re craving normalcy so bad that our vision of reality is distorted. What we want to provide is normal life for our kids, joy in their faces and lives during this crazy time. But unfortunately, hybrid social distancing schooling will be a new way to scar them and show them how unreal the world really is right now. … With time and a plan, teachers will provide an amazing virtual learning experience. We’re already planning for it. It won’t be the same as precoronavirus, but what is right now? Let’s protect them from this uncertainty and fear. Let’s keep them home.”
— Stephanie Stieber is a French teacher at Kenwood Academy in Chicago.
“I work in a very large school, so I worry about things like passing periods: people going up and down the hallways. In the sixth and seventh grades, if everybody passed at the same time, it would be like 300 people. So it can’t be the same. They’re not going to have the same social opportunities. But there are also opportunities to do a lot of creative stuff remotely.”
— Elana Jacobs is a special education teacher at Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy
“I feel that administrators and board members making the physical health of the students anything less than top priority is a disservice to each and every student and faculty member in America. I do not care so much for my own health, but I worry for my students, as any teacher does. … If we had just conceded to the virus a while ago instead of pretending things are better, we could be having discussions on how to improve and refine our remote learning practices for the upcoming school year right now instead of still debating on how much we value the lives of students across America.”
— William Westphal is an English teacher and assistant wrestling coach at Crete-Monee High School in Crete.
“I’m proud to work at Round Lake Area Schools. The district heard the concerns of our staff and families and made our community’s safety a No. 1 priority.”
— Brenda Cole is a special education teacher at Round Lake High School in Round Lake.
“I have two years till I retire and I have diabetes, so I’m an at-risk teacher. I’ve applied to work virtually, so that presents a lot of different problems. I teach art, which is usually a very hands-on class, and being on Zoom isn’t really very hands-on at all so we have to figure out how to do that. And then the way my school is doing it is I will have a group of students from all the schools in the district — we have 20 schools in the district — and so I may have one student from each school. These are students I don’t know. I’ve been at my school for almost 25 years, and I know all the students.”
— Paul Dombrowski is an art teacher at Willow Bend Elementary School and Conyers Learning Academy in Palatine.
“I’m concerned about the continuous high rate of testing in school. We shouldn’t be rating our students right now. Not on grades at least; but on how they’re doing. My last concern is relationships. I’m hoping my parents and kids will be able to see my care and commitment to them despite not seeing them every day.”
— Michelle Gunderson is a first grade teacher at Nettlehorst Elementary School.
“There are so many different problems, depending on what teacher you talk to. I’m a high school English teacher. For some context, I have a minimum of 150 students, usually. But if we think about just that 150 students, that means I’m going to have at least 10 pods. It’s not like in elementary school where you have one teacher all day long. Our kids have seven teachers all day long. How am I going to teach the half the group that’s in front of me, while simultaneously teaching the group that’s online for the day, that’s half and half? That is, that’s two positions. … It’s also just dangerous. We know kids will die. We know teachers will die. And that a lot of people think that might be a harsh thing to say, but it’s true.”
— Ariam Abraham is an English teacher at Simeon Career Academy.
“There are places with school educators and speech pathologists who have to work closely with children. What is the solution for when you need to see kids speak? And with only 400 janitors for over 600 schools, that’s not enough to ensure buildings will be properly cleaned every day.”
— Andrea Parker is an English language arts teacher at Robert Fulton Elementary School.
“We’re not ready. Even just two days in school, it’s a lot to juggle for families. Myself, as a mother, I don’t feel comfortable putting my kids at risk. I think we haven’t seen cases in children because we’ve kept them sheltered. If we open up our schools, those cases will go up.”
— Lori Torres is a teacher at Monroe Elementary.
“I don’t believe we’ve beat this virus. The numbers continue to climb. I’ve very concerned in person schools are where the virus will spread and continue to gain a foothold. Being in CPS for a very long time, I’m not seeing how, with the lack of resources, we’re ready. I don’t think CPS to be nurturing.”
— Kirstin Roberts is a preschool teacher at Brentano Elementary.
“For the district that I work for, they’ll be rotating (students) every third week. Teachers are going to be in there almost full time. So, we’re potentially being exposed to this virus much more than the students are.”
— Tina Bairstow is a math teacher at Antioch Community High School.
“I’m really happy (Oak Park and River Forest High School) didn’t go with the hybrid system. I think a hybrid system, in the situation we’re in now with the number going up … it’s just a petri dish.”
— Jim Geovanes is a physical education teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
“My greatest fear is that I contract this virus and it debilitates or kills me. My mom is very high risk and I’m all she’s got. The thought of not being able to be there for her, or worse, spreading it to her or other loved ones scares me to the core. My school is in the 60629 ZIP code and COVID has ravaged that community.”
— Theresa L. Toro is a social worker at Richardson Middle School.
“As a person who works at two schools, with two staffs, and two caseloads, it is hard to not feel like I would become the biggest threat to their health and safety, in addition to my family. The majority of students I work with are in specialized classrooms that need an intense amount of support, that requires anything from repeating activities to hand over hand instruction; there is no social distancing in our classrooms. Working with students from preschool to eighth grade typically means working in groups and visiting their classrooms, that is not currently possible. I work with students who can communicate verbally or with an augmented communication device and others who rely on total communication including facial expression and eye movements.”
— Alyssa Rodriguez is a social worker at Rudolph and Lozano elementary schools.
“Our school community got hit pretty hard with COVID-19 cases and many families do not have the resources necessary to be successful with remote learning and to stay safe due to the need to work.” — Vanessa Bernal is a special education resource teacher at Lázaro Cárdenas Elementary School .
“In my schools, I share my work space with other clinicians. There is no private nurse’s office in my schools where I can safely assess students or staff members who have symptoms without placing my colleagues at risk of being exposed. I do not have immediate access to a sink with running water for frequent hand-washing in all my schools. My schools are also overcrowded, so there is no separate area to quarantine individuals who have symptoms of COVID-19.”
— Lorena Ramirez is a school nurse at Central Cluster Cardenas, Spry and Zapata schools.
“The thought of returning to in-person learning during this second wave of COVID-19 has me feeling overwhelmed and afraid. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be at school with my students. I miss teaching in person and that real connection that I have with my kids every day. And I value the kind of education that can best be provided in person. I signed up for teaching and all the planning, preparing, grading, testing, counseling, consoling, supporting and advocating for students that come with the job. Teachers work hard for our kids every day; yes, even after school and on weekends. The highs and the lows of education are nothing new, but returning to school in person goes beyond the normal and moves into the unsafe. I’m worried about the health and safety of my students, their families, my own two children attending CPS, my husband who is immunocompromised, and my mother in her 60s who lives with us. There are real lives at stake in the decision to return.”
— Rosa Jimenez-Hernandez teaches fifth and sixth grade literacy at Sadlowski Elementary.
Alison Bowen, Saleema Syed, Milan Polk, Ariel Cheung, Stephanie Reynolds, Nara Schoenberg, Christen A. Johnson, David Syrek, Hannah Herrera Greenspan, Lauren Leazenby, Heidi Stevens and Rochell Sleets contributed to this report.
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