How we can stop failing our kids

Opinion: Columns

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Bob Spatz

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It is time to acknowledge the painful truth: The community of Oak Park, the Chicago Metro region, Illinois, and the U.S. have failed our children. 

During the height of the pandemic in the Chicago Metro area, Oak Park was averaging about 12-14 new cases per day per 100,000 residents. After getting it under control, the month of June was much, much better with only 2-4 new cases per day per 100,000. After Illinois went to Revitalization (Phase 4) on June 26, Oak Park has crept back up and for the last week has been averaging about nine new cases per day per 100,000. To put that number in context, Illinois is currently about 10 and the U.S. average is about 20. However, Germany is at 0.5 new cases per day per 100,000; less than 1/15 the rate of Oak Park. 

The more than doubling of the new infection rate leaves Oak Park no good options for starting the 2020-2021 school year. I have come to understand that the least bad course of action is to open the school year with instruction happening nearly 100 percent remotely. Due to the upward trend, there is unacceptable risk of having to move again from in-person to remote, resulting in devastating disruption to instruction and huge emotional toll on the students and staff. 

I'm almost in disbelief that our community, metro region, state, and country, unlike most European countries, were unable to get the community infection rates down low enough and sustain them at low levels, such that having in-person schooling now seems unacceptably risky. However, disbelief and disappointment should not lead us to ignore the advice of health and education experts and exacerbate an already tragic situation by allowing hundreds and thousands per building for in-person schooling, which will contribute to the community spread.

It is important to emphasize the "nearly" in nearly 100 percent remote learning. For a relatively small number of students per school for whom 100 percent remote learning is a particularly unacceptable option, it is not contradictory nor inappropriate (and arguably is more equitable) to have some in-person instruction for those students for some days for some hours and still be far less risky than hundreds or thousands in a building for seven hours.

It is also important to understand that daily life for students with nearly 100 percent remote instruction in fall 2020 should not and will not look like the daily life for students during stay-at-home orders in spring 2020. Acknowledging that hundreds or thousands of students and staff inside a building for seven straight hours is unacceptably risky does not and should not lead to the conclusion that all students should be staying at home all day every day and not interacting in person with any other students. 

Now is the time for the entire Oak Park community to think creatively and organize in order to leverage resources to provide opportunities that mitigate the heartbreaking situation in which our thousands of children and their families now find themselves.

Bob Spatz, an Oak Park resident, was a longtime District 97 school board member and board president.

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