As a longtime home day care provider in the city’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood, Sonya Winn was well aware of the hardships the Chicago Public Schools shutdown would have on working families with young children.
“When these parents found out, late at night, that their children’s schools were closed ... they’re essential workers with jobs at the veterans’ hospital, Walmart, one’s a teacher, so they don’t have a choice to work from home,” she said.
Winn, 51, expanded her before and after school day care in recent days to an all-day program for several children in need of care during the hours they would normally be at school.
“These parents are already stressed, because they’re trying to keep their kids safe from COVID, and even though most of the children are vaccinated, the parents are still scared they’ll get sick,” said Winn, whose home day care business is supported by the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago.
The need for emergency day care is critical after classes were canceled for a third day Friday for more than 330,000 CPS students as a result of a standoff with the Chicago Teachers Union over COVID-19 safety guidelines, and dozens of suburban schools were shuttered in recent days due to virus-related staff shortages.
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The tumultuous start to 2022 has been particularly difficult for low-income families in the city and suburbs, many of whom include parents who are essential workers scrambling to find last-minute day care for young children, and facing hardships well beyond the disruption to their children’s education.
CPS has directed families seeking emergency child care to its 28 Safe Haven sites, which on Friday were open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the district’s schools were expected to be distributing meals to those in need.
But Jianan Shi, the executive director of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, said many families remain frustrated and question why school district officials statewide were unprepared for the impact of this latest virus surge.
“This is the third academic year schools have been dealing with COVID, so parents don’t understand why with omicron spreading fast, and so many students in quarantine even before winter break, why did schools wait to address this?” Shi said.
While it remains unknown how long the spate of school closures in Chicago and the suburbs will last, the harm to students from ongoing school closures could go beyond learning loss.
“Neighborhood schools are community anchors for food, health and wellness, not just academics,” Shi said.
According to Department of Children and Family Services spokesman Bill McCaffrey, during the beginning of the pandemic, the number of reports to DCFS dropped by about 50% compared with the previous year, “and part of that drop may be due to teachers, who are mandated reporters, filing fewer reports as they only saw their students through video calls.”
“Reports to the hotline then increased as teachers and students returned to school in the fall of 2020, whether in classrooms, video calls or some combination of both,” McCaffrey said.
Illinois state Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas, a Democrat from Chicago, said when schools are closed, “parents are between a rock and a hard place.”
“What I’m observing is there’s frustration, because many are essential workers, and don’t have anyone to take care of their kids, but there’s also fear,” said Pacione-Zayas, who is also a CPS parent of two children.
“This situation is going to require a very measured approach to meet the needs of families and ensure the safety of our teachers,” she said.
At the Carole Robertson Center for Learning, which has locations in the Little Village, North Lawndale and Albany Park neighborhoods, spokeswoman Brenda Berman said Friday that officials “understand that the uncertainties caused by the current situation are significant stressors.”
The center, which serves many families with parents who are essential workers, is expanding its after school programs for enrolled children ages 5 to 17 to full-day programs as early as Monday, so “children and youth will have safe and nurturing places to be while their parents continue to work,” Berman said.
For Streamwood resident April Soristo Anderson, a mother of 10-year-old twin daughters, the school shutdowns demanded she recruit a relative to keep watch over her daughter, Graciela, a student at Glenbrook Elementary School, which was closed Friday because of COVID-related staff shortages.
Several Elgin-based Community Unit School District 46 schools including Glenbrook were among the dozens of suburban schools that were forced to close for at least one day during the first week back from winter break. Other districts with school closures included Algonquin-based Community Unit School District 300, Niles Township High School District 219, Glenbrook High School District 225 and Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210.
“It would have been better to have more notice from the school, and I’m starting to think the best thing might be to have a permanent shutdown for now, so parents can make proper plans,” said Anderson, an essential worker who on Friday was driving her husband to a chemotherapy appointment in Chicago.
The couple’s other daughter, Guilianna, is hospitalized at Lurie Children’s Hospital, where she is being treated for a chronic medical condition.
“All of these teachers and kids are testing positive, but we’re just trying to take it day by day,” Anderson said.
As a mother of three teenagers and the executive director of the nonprofit Illinois Unidos, Evanston resident Alejandra Ibañez said she was concerned that the school shutdowns lack an equitable response to address the needs of Black and Latino communities, many of which have borne the brunt of the pandemic.
“There are so many families who have lost household members, even before omicron showed its ugly face,” said Ibañez, who cared for her nephew, whose parents are essential workers, when his Chicago school shut down.
While Ibañez’s three children, ages 13, 14 and 16, are slated to go back to Evanston schools Monday, she questioned how classrooms can safely reopen when so many educators and students are testing positive for COVID-19.
“If schools are closed, I wonder, where will all of these kids go?” Ibañez said. “Park districts are not staffed to provide child care, and family, friends and neighbors might offer up their homes for the day, but that’s not sustainable.”
In Auburn Gresham, Winn said she is looking forward to launching her new day care business, Sonya’s Caring Hand, next month.
But for now, and until CPS classrooms reopen, Winn and her two assistants are caring for around a dozen children ranging in age from 6 weeks to 11 years old, keeping her busy from the first drop-off at 6 a.m. until the final pickup around midnight.
In addition to preparing the children three meals a day — a recent breakfast featured cinnamon oatmeal, grapes and 1% milk — Winn is determined to keep the kids on track with their academics.
“They might be out of school, but not when they’re here,” Winn said, adding: “They can still have fun, but we have school here, with books to read, help for classes where they’re struggling and exercise too.”