Breaking: This Time They Were Ready: Parents Fight Back against School Closures

Last week, there were 5,462 fresh, pandemic-driven school closures across the country, according to the Burbio school opening tracker. So far this week, there have been 4,179.

Where these closures are occurring — Milwaukee, Newark, Atlanta, and most notably Chicago — parents are at once furious and exhausted. Where schools haven't yet moved to virtual instruction, they fret over the looming threat. This time, though, they were ready to fight back.

In Chicago, schools didn't just move online for a time; they closed altogether when the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted to return to remote learning January 4 amid the latest surge in coronavirus cases. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the city responded by canceling class altogether, arguing that kids and teachers alike should be in schools for in-person learning.

"To the parents and guardians of this city, we want you to know that when you put your children in our care we put their well-being and safety first. We fight for your children like they are our own, because they are," said the CTU in a statement explaining its decision. 

Parents didn't see it that way. 

Ammie Kessem is a sergeant in the Chicago Police Department and a parent of three children who have bounced back and forth between public and private school over the last couple of years as she's sought to provide them with the most complete education she can.

She said the toll of remote learning has been evident, and that her activism — Kessem is part of an ongoing lawsuit filed against CTU — has been motivated by the experience of not just her kids, but those of the less privileged. 

As she was quick to point out, less than 60 percent of Chicago's schoolchildren were consistently logging on to complete assignments in the spring of 2020, and 15 percent ignored school altogether. "So that meant that 40 percent of these kids that were in CPS were not getting anywhere close to an education, let alone a proper education," observed Kessem.

"We already know, the significant increase that has occurred in suicides amongst these kids. It’s outrageous. I mean, it’s really very disturbing, to say the least," Kessem told National Review

 "And the fact that the CTU put these kids in that position once again is even more disturbing because these people should know better," she added. 

A recent advisory issued by U.S. surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy observed that "in early 2021, emergency department visits in the United States for suspected suicide attempts were 51% higher for adolescent girls and 4% higher for adolescent boys compared to the same time period in early 2019." Moreover, the advisory describes "disruptions in routine, such as not seeing friends or going to school in person" as risk factors for not just suicide, but other serious mental-health symptoms as well. 

For Kessem, it's not all abstract statistics. "I have friends who have lost children to suicide because of that [school closures]" she explained. 

The lawsuit filed on behalf of Chicago parents is being led by the Liberty Justice Center — the same group that brought the Janus case to the Supreme Court a few years ago — and Jeff Schwab, a senior attorney there. 

According to Schwab, the firm was prepared to file a lawsuit early last year when CTU delayed going to a hybrid model for several months, insisting on remaining fully remote through mid-April 2021. 

This time, however, Schwab is planning on following through with the suit even though the union and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have reached an agreement whereby the teachers will return.

"We’re going to continue the lawsuit because this pattern that CTU has engaged in for the last year and a half has got to stop. The strike that they engaged in, the threat of strikes that they’ve attempted, are illegal. Under Illinois law you can only strike when the contract is terminated or expired," said Schwab. 

He said this lawsuit, and the parents behind it, are filling a role that should be played by CPS. They're pursuing "damages claims and requests. . . . Because this is behavior that the union could engage in in the future, we may attempt to get an injunction that prevents them from doing so when it's against Illinois law."

Schwab told National Review that parents, and he himself, were motivated especially by the plight of special-needs students. "Some of our clients have diverse learners. Not being in school is a huge detriment not only for their academic learning, but their social, mental, and physical health," he argued.

It's his concern that moving forward even past the pandemic, the union might feel empowered to take similarly dramatic — and allegedly illegal — action. "I think that they will continue to do what they can get away with," said Schwab, who noted that the Democrat-controlled state legislature and governor's mansion have worked to expand unions' power.

In Virginia's most populous county, parents harbor similar concerns.

The Fairfax County Parents Association, which came together in June 2020 after the initial onslaught of closures, issued a preemptive statement last week asserting "that the astounding and harmful impacts on children resulting from shuttering in-person education are devastating," and arguing that "schools should be the very last institutions to close."

The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, on the other hand, suggested that "the practical and compassionate response" to the emergence of the Omicron variant would be to "extend winter break an extra week or so."

Such a measure would prevent "the inevitable and predictable stress, chaos and inequity" of proceeding as planned, according to the federation. To the chagrin of the parents’ association, it’s not an unimaginable eventuality. 

In Newark, N.J., school will be held online through at least January 18. Superintendent Roger León explained the decision by noting that the "health and safety of students and staff remains the top priority," while school-board president Dawn Haynes declared her intention to "do everything to protect our children in this fight against this horrible virus." Just 678 Americans aged 0-17 died after contracting Covid in 2021.

That's why some, including Fairfax County's Christy Hudson, are gearing up for another round of fighing with teachers' unions and other advocates for closures. After her children's schools closed in March of 2020, and the county school board and administration disregarded a survey indicating that parents wanted, at the very least, an option for hybrid learning during the 2020-2021 school year, Hudson and a group of highly frustrated, highly motivated parents started the Open Fairfax County Public Schools Coalition. 

Fairfax County schools didn't go back to school full time until fall 2021. Over time, that "informal collection of parents" turned into the Fairfax County Parents Association, an organization with goals beyond just getting kids back in school. 

"The teachers’ associations were definitely adamantly against opening schools through that whole year, that whole year that we were pushing to have that choice for our children," Hudson told National Review

The extended school closures drove home the power imbalance between teachers' unions and parents, and prompted Fairfax parents to organize.

"Every time we met a goal, the teachers’ association kind of moved that goalpost even further back so it was a constant struggle with them. And then locally, I can say that we parents were very frustrated with our school board in Fairfax County, our superintendent in Fairfax County," she said. 

Bonnie Myrshrall, president of the parents’ association, concurred. "Teachers were first in line, at least here in Virginia, first in line to be vaccinated. All the evidence, it’s proven that children are actually safer in schools. It’s just political pressure from unions who contribute a heck of a lot of money to the decision-makers," said Myrshrall.

"I’m not an advocate. I’m not an education major. I’m not a political being. None of us were, but we were seeing the harm that these closed schools were doing to our kids," she said. 

Fairfax County students ended up staying home last week due to the weather, not the virus. Ironically, the union had asked that snow days be used to get around a state law passed on a bipartisan basis to require that Virginia schools remained open for in-person learning. 

That law was passed, in no small part thanks to the efforts of groups such as the parents’ association. 

But that law is set to expire on August 1, 2022, and that worries Hudson. "We do maintain ongoing concerns about our schools being closed," she said.

"We have to normalize the fact that American children go to school," Hudson continued. "I wouldn’t be so passionate about this effort if their stories weren’t, you know, so intense — but I mean, depression, suicide attempts, teenagers with eating disorders. The learning loss, kids with disabilities who have just absolutely regressed, just painfully so, in the amount of time that they’ve been out of school. It’s just harrowing."

They're ready to fight to stop that from happening again in the near future and to create an infrastructure for future parents to use. Hudson remarked that she "would like this organization to have longevity; we would like it to continue long past us. So once my kids are all done in school, hopefully this organization is still going, and other parents are still using it."

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This Time They Were Ready: Parents Fight Back against School Closures

Exhausted Chicago parents have filed a lawsuit to prevent the local teachers’ union from holding closures ... READ MORE

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