Editorial: Suburban schools get a lesson on what to avoid in dealing with health crisis

  • Chicagoan Cheri Warner, left, stands with her daughter Brea on Monday to call for the Chicago school district and teacher's union to focus on getting students back in the classroom.

    Chicagoan Cheri Warner, left, stands with her daughter Brea on Monday to call for the Chicago school district and teacher's union to focus on getting students back in the classroom. Associated Press Photo

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 1/12/2022 12:35 PM

It may be outside the purview of a local suburban newspaper to take sides in a conflict between teachers and politicians in the Chicago Public Schools, but there certainly are lessons for suburban educators in the unfortunate developments roiling the city school system.

They start with a concept that ought to be fundamental to every complex negotiation, but seems entirely absent from the dispute at CPS -- respect.


Tense, emotional circumstances can easily turn into bitter, counterproductive personal battles. How, one wonders for example, did it advance the goal of educating Chicago's kids for Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey to call Mayor Lori Lightfoot "relentlessly stupid" or for Lightfoot to retort that Sharkey is "a desperate man?"

Adversarial tension is perhaps an unavoidable byproduct of any system made up of individuals separated by competing personal interests, but when the common goal all those interests ought to be pursuing is the elevation of children, personal sniping and selfish maneuvering cannot be part of the equation. It's incumbent on decision-makers and leaders to prioritize the children and look for ways to blend their parochial concerns into the larger mission.

Their declarations to the contrary, that certainly does not seem to be the spirit in which the city and its teachers approached negotiations that achieved, assuming teachers ratify it, a fragile compromise permitting in-person learning.

Beyond simple respect, leaders also must be prepared. The omicron variant caught almost everyone by surprise, but if we've learned anything over the past two years, it's that we are in a volatile environment. Chicago and its teachers would have been in a far better place at the outset of this crisis if they had been working together on contingencies earlier. And, the nature of their current enmity ought to be a signal to school districts across the suburbs of what the future may hold if they are not now building relationships and developing alternatives for unpredictable surprises.

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Remote learning, like remote work, has been a fortunate backstop that would not have been available in a public health crisis even 10 years ago. It has enabled much to be done that could not have been done otherwise. But it has not been an acceptable alternative to traditional in-person schooling. Administrators know this, teachers know this, parents know it all too well and data has confirmed it over and over.

It certainly may be required at times, but schools committed to the best interests of their students should be working and planning now to ensure that infections are kept to a minimum, that students and teachers alike can remain safe and that in-person learning can take place as much as possible.

These seem like obvious goals, but the Chicago experience shows how easily the interests of sectarian constituencies can derail them. As outsiders, we would hope that the adults running and working for the city's school system could provide children better lessons in problem solving than they've shown previously.

Closer to home, we hope that suburban teachers, administrators and school boards alike are learning lessons that will help them avoid such counterproductive rancor in whatever future awaits.

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