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Parents Divided Over Returning To Unit 5 Classrooms

Kid washes hands
Ashlee Rezin Garcia
Chicago Sun-Times via AP, Pool
Unit 5 superintendent Kristen Weikle has said students follow COVID safety protocols, including wearing masks.

Unit 5 plans to bring its elementary students back to the classroom five days a week, starting later this week.

The decision has parents in the district divided over safety, mental health, and all the other issues the pandemic has raised.

Mike Klug has two children enrolled in Unit 5 schools. Both kids have been learning remotely since March. Klug said while his children miss their friends, they’ve been thriving in the remote format. 

He doesn’t agree with the argument that schools should reopen to prevent kids from falling behind. 

“These kids are not falling behind because there’s no one that they’re falling behind,” Klug said. “They’re all in the same situation. There’s not other kids that are getting ahead of them.”

Educators say the real comparison is not how students are learning relative to their peers, it’s how the kids are learning compared to the standards they must meet for their ages.

But in a world that’s been turned upside down by the pandemic, standards can be difficult to apply. And for parents like Klug, no argument overrides the conviction that it simply isn’t safe to reopen schools. 

“It’s not safe for the teachers. It’s certainly not safe for the kids. And it’s not safe for the other employees of the school that have to be there to make things work either. It’s not fair to any of those quote unquote essential workers that are criminally underpaid,” he said. 

Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle has said students follow COVID safety protocols, including wearing masks. Based on what he’s seen in the community, Klug said he doubts children can be expected to reliably adhere to mitigation measures like proper mask use. 

“You’re walking into the gas station and see a whole bunch of people with no masks on and you’re telling me you think a bunch of little kids are going to do a better job than that?”

Not all parents share Klug’s concern. 

Mollie Emery has been substituting as a school nurse at Fairview elementary since October. Emery, who is also the parent of a Unit 5 student, said her time at Fairview has left her with “zero concern” that kids can’t follow the rules. 

“I feel like they do a wonderful job,” she said.

Emery, a registered nurse, thinks the Unit 5 dashboard numbers on infections and quarantines might confuse some people, who may think the numbers indicate bigger problems than she sees in the building.

“I think it’s important for the general public to remember, they oftentimes see metrics that are shared – whether it’s on the Unit 5 website, or even things through the health department – that they don’t always fully understand what goes into those numbers,” Emery said.

She offered the number of students in quarantine as an example of a metric that can easily be misinterpreted, saying quarantine doesn’t necessarily imply that a student has tested positive for COVID, or is a close contact of someone who has. Students also quarantine after travelling or while awaiting a test result. 

So while Unit 5 metrics may not look good to some, Emery said she finds the numbers “very promising.”

But some parents still aren’t willing to take the risk. 

Florence Maxison contracted COVID in December and is still struggling with its effects. She deals with chest pain and a constant feeling of exertion. But what worries her most, she said, is a continued inability to catch her breath.

“No matter what, it just feels like I can never have enough air,” Maxison said. 

She’s now considered a COVID long-hauler by her doctors, who have no idea when, if ever, her lingering symptoms will subside. Maxison said its this kind of uncertainty about the disease that makes her hesitate to send her kids back to school full time. 

In fact, she’s trying to move her kids from their current hybrid format to an entirely remote curriculum.

Maxison said she’s OK with Unit 5’s hybrid learning plan because physical class sizes are smaller, making safety protocols easier to enforce. 

“But when you start bringing everybody back together, now we have a classroom of 20, so to speak, there’s no way possible for you to have those parameters set. So in my opinion, you’re raising the stakes for not just our children, but our teachers and our staff as well,”  said Maxison, adding she’s getting “push back” from Unit 5 and so far has been unable to switch her children into remote learning. 

Unit 5 communications director Dayna Brown said the district hasn’t heard from Maxison, but that families were asked in December to decide between remote and hybrid formats.

“We stressed that this was a decision for the remainder of the year, and that families should consider that we could change to five days a week of in-person learning at any time during the semester,” Brown said. 

Maxison said parents should always have the choice to change formats. And if the district can’t work with her, she will homeschool her five kids.

“Because I just want to ensure that they’re safe. And we are still navigating the waters under this pandemic. Everything is a learning curve. Things change at a moment’s notice, so it’s safety first for me.”

Brown said Unit 5 is working to alleviate families’ concerns. She encouraged anyone with questions to contact their school’s principal.

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.