By The Paw Print Editorial Board
With the COVID variant Omicron, a CTU walkout, and a CPS student protest, the end of remote and hybrid learning has been marred by controversy. While Mayor Lightfoot and CPS are unrelenting in their view that physical schools are the best place for students to be, many teachers and students are fighting for remote learning, and parents, while divided in opinion, are universally exhausted by the instability. After a full semester of being in school, when many students have adjusted to in-person learning, it’s easy to forget who pays the price for this return to normalcy.
The academic and social experience of returning varies from personality to personality, but negative impacts fall disproportionately on minority and low-income students. A 2020 report from McKinsey and Co. estimated that White students lost about one to three months of learning while students of color lost three to five months of learning. Many low-income students return after a year of remote learning without adequate support to help them succeed. However, many of these problems seem to have been forgotten in CPS’ furious fight to keep students in school.
“Going back into this year pretending that everything is normal is hard with this adjustment period, especially with kids that don’t have the resources to accelerate that easily, Said Nick Jaxen ‘23. “For example, some students are able to pay for test prep and AP classes. They can get tutors if they didn’t learn things from last year.” However, these options aren’t viable for low-income families, many of whom have been financially impacted by COVID.
In-person learning has also intensified race-based microaggressions. While isolated incidents that occurred on recorded Google Meets could be easily identified, the subtle suggestion of not belonging is harder to capture in-person. As faculty leave their jobs in large numbers after an exhausting COVID experience, many CPS schools lack the staff to deal with these incidents, and CPS has provided no help. Nor is there a clear system in place to support minority students or report incidents. The rapid transition back to in-person school is ultimately responsible for this lack of preparation.
Racial and class-based inequities were existent at Payton both during remote learning and long before COVID, as evidenced by the harm chronicled in the 627 posts of @bipoc.payton. “There were already problems occurring before the pandemic and those were never resolved,” Jaxen explains. The question is, in a school district that is 78% low-income and 90% minority, how?
When CPS announced a two-week closure of schools on March 13, 2020, here were less than 30 COVID cases in Cook County. On January 10, 2022, CPS ordered students back to in-person learning with over 11,000 COVID cases in Cook County. COVID was once approached with extreme caution, but is now seen as little more than a mask-shaped inconvenience. The common understanding is that Omicron is not as virulent as the other COVID variants. If not themselves, many people have friends or family who’ve gotten sick and recovered from COVID, creating the dangerous perception that it can’t be that damaging to others.
This apathy towards the pandemic is termed “COVID fatigue.” People who can afford to feel COVID fatigue can afford to get sick, take time off work, and pay for hospitals and medications. In the echo chamber of a school that is predominantly white, it is easy to forget that experiencing COVID fatigue is a sign of privilege.
COVID impacts minorities much more severely than whites, and these disparities persist even when all socioeconomic and demographic factors are accounted for. COVID disproportionately harms low-income communities due to both environmental and financial factors. The fallout from a COVID case, which often includes job loss, can be severe enough to drive a low-income family out of an apartment or into severe debt.
In-person learning has been particularly difficult for Tai Ramirez ‘23, who cares for a younger sibling and nephew and whose mother has cancer, especially after COVID hit their family hard. “There are days that I must miss school in order to care for my family, and the lack of an online option has caused me to fall behind [in classes]. It feels like I have fallen in the cracks of the CPS system, and nobody is even looking for me. It feels as if CPS is forcing me to choose the well being of my family or my education. If I choose my education, I fall behind financially and my family struggles. If I choose my family, I fall behind in school, and it takes weeks to catch up. Overall, I have lost a lot of my faith in CPS and the city leaders because of their lack of support for students like myself.”
CPS students have had to be on the front lines in fighting for their safety and the safety of their families and peers. On Friday, January 14, hundreds of students from Chicago Public Schools walked out of classes and blocked off the entrance to CPS headquarters to protest the return to in-person school, a demonstration that CPS largely ignored.
In an Instagram post featuring pictures from the protest, Natalie Soutonglang ‘22 (@natalie.sout) writes, “Payton is functioning in a system where massive inequality exists. For many of our families, if one of us gets COVID, all of us are getting COVID. And if everyone’s got COVID, that’s wiping out an entire week of income. We need food, we need medicine, we need support. We’ve got baby siblings at home, we’ve got grandparents at home, we’ve got immunocompromised peers surrounding us.”
In-person learning has created many challenges for low-income and minority students, and CPS has offered no concrete support. COVID fatigue poses a silent threat to the progress schools have made towards equity. While some of us may be tired of hearing about it, the pandemic is not over until it’s over for those most vulnerable.