'Serious Damage Is Being Done': Former Head Of CPS Weighs In On Schools Reopening In The Fall

Bernie Tafoya
July 13, 2020 - 1:27 pm

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- A former head of the Chicago Public School system said city schools need to be safely open for in-person learning for the next academic year.

"The horrendous damage that’s being done to a generation of children is incalculable," said Paul Vallas, the CPS Chief Executive Officer from 1995 to 2001.

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Vallas said there are ways to make it so children are not contracting nor spreading the coronavirus. He said that includes everything from having temperature checks before children leave home, before they get on school buses, and before they walk into school buildings.

He also said there should be mask-wearing where physical distancing of six feet cannot be maintained, and even plexiglass desk partitions to protect students and their teachers.

Vallas acknowledges some remote learning might be needed. In those cases, he said, teachers need to be trained appropriately in remote learning.  

"What some school districts are doing, like Denver, is they've identified the teachers that have pre-existing conditions that are of a certain age, and they're creating their own remote teaching corps.

"You need to have that contingency in the event that schools have to close again, or in the event that schools stay open, but a number of students will have to be quarantined, remote learning has to go on."

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Vallas said no set of safety precautions is 100 percent foolproof, but that children, especially poor children, are being hurt the worst when not in school.

Vallas contends a school of 500 students could be outfitted with proper equipment for about $25,000.

"Being out of schools four months, five months can have a catastrophic impact," Vallas said.

He said schools "have got to re-open because serious damage (is) being done the longer these children are out of school."

Vallas points to some research that indicates children have low rates of contracting and spreading the coronavirus as further evidence they need to be in school.

He believes there's more of a chance of kids contracting the virus by not being monitored by an adult should they be at home while their parents have to go to work.

Vallas posted this on his Facebook page on Monday:

With the normal school year starting in six weeks, what is the city’s plan for reopening schools? Time is short. First priority should be to design a comprehensive health safety plan to reopen school campuses. The damage being done to children, especially poor or otherwise vulnerable students, middle income families and working poor who can’t afford childcare services nor take time off, far outweighs the impact of the virus among young people.

Wirepoints recently published an article factually pointing out that children are spared the worst effects of the virus with only 4 of the 7,099 COVID-19 fatalities in Illinois being children under 4. They point out that the CDC reports that only 15 of the linked fatalities nationally have been children under 15 compared to 200 who died from the flu and pneumonia. While other COVID related child health care issues remain rare, every child’s health is important requiring practical steps that can be taken to minimize risk. Of course, this is not meant to diminish the value of any child’s life. Our responsibility to children’s overall wellbeing requires a balanced perspective.

The State of Illinois guidelines for reopening schools specified essential elements of risk reduction.

  • Require the use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), including face coverings;
  • Prohibit more than 50 individuals from gathering in one space.
  • Require social distancing be observed, as much as possible;
  • Require that schools conduct symptom screenings and temperature checks or require that individuals self-certify that they are free of symptoms before entering school buildings;
  • Require an increase in schoolwide cleaning and disinfection.

If schools manage to reopen for in-person instruction, the paramount goal will be for students and staff who test positive or come into contact with someone infected will need to be quarantined. There will be older teachers and teachers with pre-existing conditions who need to be accommodated.

The costs of implementing an effective health-safety plan are not prohibitive with the right facility utilization plan and staff models, parent and community cooperation and flexibility to modify certain state and local mandates in this time of crisis. The equipment costs for a quality school health-safety plan are modest. For a school with a student population of 500 the cost of purchasing and maintaining the temperature screening devices, acquiring disposable masks for students, faculty and staff, acquiring enough desk partitions and office sneeze guards would be less than $25,000. Desk partitions and sneeze guards can further enhance health safety through physical separation. This is beneficial to schools that have social distancing challenges because of the size of the student population and physical space limitations.

Worst case scenario, entire schools could be forced into another complete shutdown. Schools must be prepared for the possibility of another shut down and must use these summer weeks to not only address the technology and connectivity access for all students but to also ensure that all teachers are given the curriculum and instruction models and supports and the training to thrive in a remote learning instructional environment.

This should not be a budget issue. According to the US Census Bureau, Illinois is spending 20% more per pupil than the national average and between 28% and 50% more than its neighboring states. The Chicago Public Schools spends $2 thousand more than the Illinois average on both instruction and general operations. Despite the pandemics impact on state revenues, Illinois is providing level funding for the new school year. Furthermore the federal government will likely add to the $13.5 billion already provided to K-12 schools. Illinois received $569 million, 90% of which went directly to school districts with $205 or 40% going to Chicago.

There is simply no excuse for not having a health-safety plan to safely reopen schools and improved capability to provide quality remote learning plan for those students and faculty who need to be quarantined and for the possibility that districts may be forced to shut down again.