Column: Politics cloud school decisions about safety of in-person learning during pandemic – Chicago Tribune

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There are no easy answers in the debate over whether it is safe to send children back to school as omicron surges during this phase of the pandemic.
People on both sides make valid points. Many parents have to work. A full year of remote learning was a disaster that strained the mental health and stunted the social growth of many students. Many children rely on schools to provide hot meals every weekday.
On the other hand, schools could be cesspools that spread COVID-19. Absentee rates are soaring in some buildings. Many teachers are sick at home, and a lack of substitutes means colleagues must do their best to pick up the slack. Walking wounded carry the stretcher cases.
There aren’t enough bus drivers, nurses and other support staff at many schools. Some schools are nearing a threshold where there are so many sick students and staff, they might have to shut down.
“Remote teaching is better than no teaching,” read a sign held by a Chicago Public Schools teacher during a demonstration this week.
Administrators are grappling with the dilemma at schools in the Southland, throughout the state and across the country. Case counts have skyrocketed. Hospitals are full. This moment feels among the most stressful in a pandemic that began nearly two years ago.
Some districts, such as Thornton High School District 205 and Matteson Elementary School District 159, have switched to remote learning. Many schools have banned spectators from athletic events and extracurricular activities.
Yet there is a sense that sporting events will go on and classes will be held in person for as long as possible.
“Despite the recently surging numbers in both positivity percent and in case counts per 100,000, we feel that schools are still safe as long as mitigations are in place and we have the staff in place to receive the students,” Ty Harting, superintendent of Oak Lawn-based Community High School District 218, wrote in a recent letter to the community.
It would be tough enough to decide whether to hold classes in person purely based on science, health and safety. Conditions change, sometimes relatively quickly, and people must adapt. Most do their best to keep up with the changes, but it can get confusing.
Some see opportunity in the chaos. When everything is politicized, you can’t let a good crisis go to waste. Some partisans have rushed to assign blame over the work stoppage affecting Chicago schools. Parents detest remote learning, polling has shown. The Chicago Teachers Union made a good scapegoat.
Chicago Public Schools teachers at Mount Greenwood Elementary School defied their union and welcomed students in person Monday when other schools were closed. The union had to contend with the reality that a lack of unity could be seen as a sign of weakness.
The winning narrative depicted teachers as greedy and selfish. The union said teachers had to fight for basic safety protocols. Both sides late Monday said they reached an agreement to end the four-day work stoppage.
Union members said they won concessions that included increasing testing in schools, setting metrics that could trigger schools to go remote, securing additional KN95 masks for staff and students and beefing up contact tracing.
Did teachers deserve to become villains for wanting a workplace that valued the health and safety of children?
“As More Teachers’ Unions Push for Remote Schooling, Parents Worry. So Do Democrats,” The New York Times wrote in a headline Saturday.
Pundits said people associated teachers’ unions with Democrats, thus fault for the work stoppages and other disruptions could be entirely assigned to liberals who want to destroy America, regardless of whether such blame was warranted. Criticism about schools helped win over suburban moderates when a Republican recently won an election for governor of Virginia, pundits said.
The sad thing is, temporarily shifting to remote learning for a couple weeks is probably the safest and most sensible thing to do at this time. While vaccinated people are less likely to get severe cases and omicron may be less deadly than other variants, omicron also seems to spread more easily.
Record numbers of people are testing positive for COVID-19. Even though only a relatively small percentage of cases require hospitalization, the number of positives is so great that hospitals are at capacity.
Instead of staying focused on saving lives, we allow ourselves to be distracted by political theater.
Not long ago, there seemed to be a prevailing narrative that teachers were heroes who deserved thanks for persevering through challenging situations. Like food workers, medical professionals and other essential personnel, teachers were doing their best to maintain a sense of normalcy despite trying circumstances.
Now it seems teachers are the bad guys because valuing health and safety apparently is a losing political strategy.
“Omicron is surging — and Democrats aren’t shutting things down this time,” Politico declared in a headline Sunday.
These next few weeks may be among the most difficult of the pandemic. Many schools are sharing advice with parents and community members about what they can do to help.
“Stay home when you are sick or not feeling well,” Homewood-Flossmoor High School District 233 Superintendent Von Mansfield wrote in a letter about in-person classes resuming last week. “Get your family vaccinated/boosted.”
Get tested, wear a high-quality mask properly and maintain distance from others, Mansfield wrote.
I would add it would be helpful to lay off the partisan blame game for a bit during the omicron surge, but I know that would be asking too much.
Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.
tslowik@tribpub.com
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