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The story of Chicago’s struggling students can’t be covered over the phone

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The story of Chicago’s struggling students can’t be covered over the phone

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Olga Contreras teaches students remotely from her classroom at Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Chicago in September.
Olga Contreras teaches students remotely from her classroom at Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Chicago in September.
(Photo by Michelle Kanaar/WBEZ)

The day it was announced that schools in Chicago were to be closed due to COVID-19 was surreal. It was March 13, 2020, a chilly, rainy Friday afternoon. 

That day there were three successive press conferences: the mayor and the Chicago Department of Public Health explained why schools didn’t need to be closed; the teacher’s union bashed the mayor for not closing schools; and finally, the governor overrode the mayor and instructed all schools in the state to shut down.

That was also the day that Chicago Public Media was sending us to work from home. And by the time I got back from all the press conferences, it was late in the day and there was barely anyone left in my office. Walking out that day felt like going into the abyss. We had no idea what to expect. 

For the next five months, I covered the school district from my home couch, mostly trying to get parents and teachers to come onto Zoom and tell me what was going on with their children, in their lives and their work. 

And yet out there, in the bungalows and the two flats, in the Greystones and the apartments, there was a sea shift going on in education in Chicago. It was unimaginable that children in Chicago would suddenly all be learning from home. Only recently had the school district even had a goal of one-to-one computers and tens of thousands of students had no access to the internet in their homes. Also, for years the school district, and in particular the current CEO of the school system, had been touting academic growth among the city’s children more than most students across the country. As officials proudly pointed out, these gains had been verified by a Stanford professor. 

So, I wondered, how would students even access their classes? And once they did, would the education they received be comparable? Would all the gains be lost? Meanwhile, COVID-19 was wreaking havoc on communities. I worked over the summer with some colleagues who were trying to reach the families of 50 people who died in two of the hardest-hit communities. Over and over again we heard about children in those households. We also heard about how the deaths were intertwined with poverty and desperation. 

Come September 2020, I felt an urgent need to get out of my house and see what was really going on. At that time, we were hearing a lot about the need to reopen schools and learning loss. And yet these conversations seemed abstract, lost in politics and statistical models. 

For my 2020 National Fellowship project, I wanted to get out of my house and into classrooms and other families’ living rooms. I wanted to go to where education was happening. I did not know what I would find and I did not know what story there would be to tell. Yet I had to go there. It had been a long time since I had an opportunity to do this type of journalism where the idea was to just observe, rather than have a specific story in mind and then report it out. I wanted to go into a neighborhood that was grappling with the most devastating effects of the pandemic. This, I believed, was where I would really see how and whether education was working. But that also meant that I would be exposing myself to COVID-19. Yet I put on my mask and got a long mic stick and decided that it was worth the risk. 

I spent the fall going a couple times a week to a school on the Southwest Side of Chicago. The teacher had decided she would teach from her classroom, even though all classes in Chicago were remote. I was there to see when the teacher would ask the students questions and some children were too shy to answer. I saw the teacher hand out materials to parents and students outside of school and how she let them hug her because how can you resist a hug from a 7-year-old? I saw their glee at seeing each other in person. I saw them on screens in dark rectangles struggle and I saw them catch concepts. I saw them zone out and the teacher try to reel them back in. I saw the parents and grandparents sitting by their children with love and concern. And I even saw some children learn how to get onto video games on a different tab on their laptop while in class. 

Toward the end of the semester, the teacher decided that she was going to give the students a standardized test, even though the school district had cancelled them. From working with the children, she had suspicions that they were behind, but she needed a full picture of where they were. She said she had to know where they were so she could help move them forward. What she discovered was that none of the students were where they should be at the start of second grade. Not one student. 

My hope is that the story I was able to tell gave listeners and readers a clearer picture of learning loss and what is at stake. But it also was able to show how families and their children are dealing with the situation. It showed the mother living in a small dark apartment who was stressed out in a house with three children; the little boy with attention issues for who sitting still in front of a computer is a monumental task; and the little girl who feels pressure to answer questions correctly because her dad is watching. If I was not sitting there in that classroom, I would not have been able to tell the story so vividly. It is one thing to say a second grader cannot read; it is another thing to hear him struggling to read. 

Doing this project reminded me how important it is to have patience as a journalist and to go into a story with an open mind. Also, it reminded me not to be afraid that there won’t be something to say. Just telling the story is enough, whatever it is. Finally, I truly believe that it was critical for me to take the risk and do the reporting in person. This might sound overly dramatic, but I saw it almost as a war correspondent might. You can’t cover a war over the phone. The pandemic will have long lasting effects on education, and it is critical that people see what is happening.

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