As Oak Park schools grapple with how to approach the upcoming school year, there's been intense debate on social media among parents and community members about whether or not schools should reopen remotely or allow students to return to classrooms, at least for part of the week.
By most accounts, the loudest voices in chat rooms and private groups and board members' inboxes have been those of parents adamant that their students return to class. Earlier this month, administrators with both Districts 97 and 200 announced plans to start the fall on a fully remote learning model.
Speaking on Oak Park Village Trustee Dan Moroney's podcast Common Ground Oak Park that was uploaded July 26, District 200 school board member Matt Baron said that he's been getting more feedback from people who want students to return to classrooms to get "a meaningful educational experience, at least some of the time, as soon as possible."
Oak Park parents Cara Carmody and Mara Maas were on Moroney's podcast in July to explain their support for a return to in-person classes.
Carmody, a teacher with two children in D97 and a child in D200, and Maas, a pediatrician with four children in D97, both started a petition earlier this year to encourage D97 to plan for a return to in-person learning in the fall.
The parents said that they were concerned about the lack of communication coming from D97 about a reopening strategy and wanted to ensure that the voices of parents who support in-person learning were represented in the planning process. Carmody also spoke out against the apparent harms of remote learning.
"Ideally, e-learning is not for children, anyway," she said on the June 20 show. "Kids sitting in front of the screen for four-plus hours is not a good way to learn. It's not educationally appropriate. Kids want to be in a classroom setting … not in their home setting with distractions," she said. "It's kind of like setting them up for failure."
Carmody added that "research shows that [e-learning] is just not a good and feasible academic plan and takes completely away from [students'] social and emotional skills that they're not getting in a school setting."
Baron said what may account for why those parents who don't agree with remote learning may be louder than those who support the measure.
"People who are not supportive of the direction that we're headed in are less likely to reach out to us," said Baron, the parent of two rising seniors.
"And we've had some people, a smaller percentage, say, 'Hey, thank you for what you're doing, I'm behind you, we understand this is complex and I want to make sure you know there's people on this side of the equation, as well,'" Baron said. "And that's human nature. There's more likely to be a response from people who are opposed to something than there are [people who are not opposed]."
Laona Fleischer, an adult librarian whose son is a rising senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School, is among that relatively quiet contingency of parents who nonetheless agreed to voice her opinion on the record.
"There's been a lot of discussion about going all-in virtually or going to a hybrid model," she said during a phone interview last week. "All along, I really just wanted to keep my son at home. Even though it's his senior year, until we come up with a vaccine, the virus is impossible to control."
Fleischer said she understands the concerns of people who want students to return to physical classrooms, particularly families who have children with special needs and worry about the physical isolation that may come with remote learning.
"I know there are parents who are upset, but this is a really good opportunity for us to maybe not push our kids so hard," she said. "School is always so high pressure. Maybe we can use this time to reevaluate our lives and what's going in the world. My family has had so many dinners at home together that we never would have when everyone was at work. We've actually been able to kind of come together."
Shayna Connelly, the mother of two children — a sixth grader and an eighth grader — in District 97 schools, echoed Fleisher's sentiment and pushed back against the notion that remote learning is inherently harmful.
Connelly, a university professor trained in remote learning and who supports remote learning in D97, said in a phone interview last week that remote learning, while difficult to implement, can be effective and engaging if implemented correctly.
"I've been very vocal about the parent response and the lack of understanding about what real online learning is, which is not what happened in the spring," Connelly said. "That was an emergency situation."
Connelly said that effective remote learning shouldn't be reduced to Zoom lectures and Google Hangout study groups. She pointed to her daughter's experience with remote learning over the summer as a case in point.
"I was really impressed," she said of the remote learning summer session. "My daughter made friends. It was interactive. She learned a lot. It was well-organized. I think the thing parents really want is structure and an ability for students to work in a way that is self-directed. They need that in order to work at home."
Echoing Fleischer, Connelly added that the pandemic is an opportunity for schools to shift from a very constrained idea of what education is supposed to be about and toward a more holistic understanding of learning that is more about inculcating global skills like media literacy or the ability to empathize, think critically and tolerate ambiguity ("skills that go beyond the classroom, but aren't testable").
"One of the good things about this situation is that it might give students an idea of what it is to experiment and fail, and to understand that that's part of learning. [Failure] is not the end of the world and the recovery from whatever that failure looks like is what makes the person. That's a very important part of education, so I wish parents would be less worried about achievement and more concerned with just facilitating an environment where students feel like they can explore their interests, which is not something that can typically happen in a regimented school situation."
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Laona Fleischer's name. A previous version of this article also confused Carmody and Maas. WJ regrets the error.
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