As some Chicago Public Schools students return to the classroom for in-person learning, many families continue remote learning

School gates open, and classroom lights shine during a Monday afternoon at West Ridge Elementary School as some students return for in-person learning. (Diamond Palmer/MEDILL)
School gates open, and classroom lights shine during a Monday afternoon at West Ridge Elementary School as some students return for in-person learning. (Diamond Palmer/MEDILL)

By Diamond Palmer
Medill Reports

Parents like Cortney Ritsema, a mother of three, have become used to frequent interruptions throughout the day from their kids. For Ritsema, this means frequently shushing her pre-K twins when she’s on the phone. Currently she is a stay-at-home mother, but she was planning to return to the job as a child psychologist job that she left  when she had to weigh the pros and cons of remote learning.

But even though Chicago Public Schools is in the process of reopening, allowing families to choose in-person or remote learning, Ritsema has decided to keep her kids at home where it’s safe. This comes at the cost of continuing to forgo her own career.

“I feel really privileged and lucky to be able to be a stay-at-home mom,” Ritsema said. “I don’t have to worry about a job or a career with remote learning. For me, remote learning for the parents feels like a full-time job.”

Ritsema says she spends numerous hours a week on extra lessons the teachers weren’t able to get to. Her pre-K twins are the ones who need the most support, while she can trust her second grader, Mila, to be independent.

Ritsema’s plan to continue remote learning is based on knowing her children won’t have the same rich learning environment if they return to school. As a stay-at-home mother, she is able to provide more one-on-one teaching experiences with her children than she could if she was working from home.

Hanging over her head are  frustrations with the reopening negotiations between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools. She and many other parents have formed their own reopening plans through the IL Raise Your Hand activism group, in hopes the city and mayor will listen to them.

“Overall we as parents feel like we should be included and have a seat at the table when CPS, CTU and the mayor are coming together and making plans about our kids,” Ritsema said.

Cortney Ritsema (far right corner) attends a CPS parent town hall to discuss caring for the school community. (Diamond Palmer/MEDILL)
Cortney Ritsema (far right corner) attends a CPS parent town hall to discuss caring for the school community. (Diamond Palmer/MEDILL)

CPS families have teamed up with their own plan called “TLC.” The letters stand for “Trust, transparency and CPS to stop cutting corners. Learning: those who need the most, get the most and do no harm. And care: caring for the school and family community.” Parents’ biggest concerns about returning to in-person learning have been the learning environments, the mental health resources for children and if proper cleaning supplies will be readily available.

Sadaka Whitehead-Smith, a former CPS teaching assistant, decided to return to a previous position as a telehealth operator to attend to her remote-learner kids more efficiently. She is a mother of two middle-schoolers.

“For all the things I know for my children, I don’t think it’s safe for them until there is a better plan in place for a lot of reasons,” Whitehead-Smith said.

Seeing safety concerns firsthand in CPS schools, she knew remote learning was the only option for her children. She’s seen everything including broken bathroom stalls, no soap and no toilet paper in school bathrooms. She worries about teachers enforcing COVID-19 precautions with a lack of essential supplies.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been at the front of the back and forth over the safety of returning to in-person learning.

CPS allotted $100 million to improve ventilation and provide personal protective equipment to classrooms for in-person learning. According to the Illinois State Board of Education during December, 77,000 CPS students opted in for in-person learning, leaving the rest of the 278,000 across Chicago for remote learning. Pre-K through eighth grade and special education had the option to return to in-person instruction first. CPS CEO Janice Jackson questions if high school students will be able to return before the end of the school year.

“Just like we’ve seen with the early days of the vaccine, (there is) a lot of hesitancy, a lot of people waiting and seeing. I’m sure that’s some of what’s informing these numbers,” Lightfoot said during a January news conference. “But we had three weeks of success and we started to see more people come, and I’m confident that when we get past this moment and reopen again, and when people see the success, more will come.”

However a majority of students are still logging in on computers each morning from their homes. Whitehead-Smith says remote learning has its challenges. Her sixth grader struggles with increased hours of time on the computer and needs more breaks while her eighth grader advocates for his classmates.

It’s not a surprise that mental health and depression have been big concerns of CPS remote learners. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, from March to October 2020 emergency department visits for mental health increased 24% in children ages 5 to 11.

Whitehead-Smith’s eighth grader says teachers are trying their best to make the situation bearable, but everyone is struggling. Socializing is a large part of the school experience, and it is lacking, causing strain on children.

For Cassandra Kaczocha, she sees her children struggling with the same aspects of remote learning. This mother of three is a senior analyst for a Fortune 500 company, working from home since her oldest child was a year old. Kaczocha isn’t afraid to show remote learning has affected their mental health as well. She sets aside every Friday evening as a time they can relax and eat greasy food while enjoying movies.

“We came into this school knowing some things might suffer, that might look like grades. And we’re not going to care as much” about grades, Kockshza said. “My 10-year-old is a straight-A student, and we’ve been talking to her and telling her that she might not get straight A’s this year and that’s OK. It will be OK.”

Diamond Palmer is a community and culture reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @diamondpalmertv.