The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools is the most prestigious K-12 in the city of Chicago and the former school of President Barack Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia. Located right on the University of Chicago campus, nearly half of the students who attend the Lab School have a parent who is on faculty or staff at the university. With an annual tuition over $20,000, the school was ranked fourth in the nation for its record of sending graduates to elite universities and colleges. This is a steep price for a K-12 education — especially since now it’s remote.
While other private schools in Chicago have been in person for all grades since the beginning of the academic year, the University of Chicago Laboratory School has remained virtual, despite all the Lab School teachers being vaccinated. “Parents are enraged,” said Eric Oliver, a Political Science Professor at the University of Chicago whose kids attend the Lab School.
“The cherry on top,” one parent said is the school has begun allowing sports practices, but still no in-person learning.
Nursery school through second grade are in-person. All other grades are remote. By March 29th, third through fifth will potentially return with five feet of social distancing and middle- and high-schoolers to a hybrid model. Currently, there is no plan for a return to normal in-person learning next fall.
Last week, about 50 parents staged a protest outside the Laboratory School, demanding an immediate resumption of in-person learning for older grades, and hundreds of parents have also signed an online petition calling for students’ return to normalcy in the fall.
Chicago Teachers Received Vaccine Priority
The Lab School teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, is the second largest in the country, and Lab School teachers were given higher vaccination priority ahead of South Side residents, including those living in majority-black or Latino neighborhoods.
Dr. K. Sarah Hoehn, an intensive care unit physician at the Comer Children’s Hospital, said the university prioritized giving its share of the vaccine to Lab teachers over South Siders. “The teachers had realistic reasons to not want to go before, but now they don’t,” Hoehn told the Hyde Park Herald at the protest. “There’s literally no reason. So we’ve got to get the children back to school.”
“The teachers union’s demands are unreasonable and selfish,” said Lynn Franco, a South Side resident who was raised in Chicago and now works in the shipping department at the University of Chicago Regenstein Library. According to Franco, the demands made by the union are hurting children and frustrating people on the South Side of Chicago who don’t yet have the vaccine.
This Isn’t About Health and Science
In an email to the Lab community, interim Director David W. Magill blamed the abandonment of February plans to return lower school students to campus on the release of new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the CDC’s placement of Chicago in a “high transmission red” zone on Feb. 12.
The irony here is that CDC Director Rochelle Walensky publicly admitted that the agency’s new school reopening guidelines were informed by the opinions of anti-in-person-learning teachers unions.
Since Lab parents being bulldozed by the teachers union and the Lab administration include some of the top COVID-19 researchers in the country, they aren’t falling for the anti-science excuses. Dr. Tara Henderson, a UChicago Medicine pediatric oncologist with children enrolled at Lab, said at a protest the Hyde Park Herald covered that last year in the United States there were fewer deaths from COVID-19 among children than there were the year before from influenza.
“Our teachers are safe,” Henderson continued. “The only thing that’s unsafe here is keeping the school closed.”
What is really troublesome, according to Henderson, is the serious psychological problems children are experiencing. “Psychological trauma increases chronic health conditions in adults and can change length of life,” she explained. “We have to think about when we send out kids into school, is it going to be safe? We have lots of factors saying that we think that it is.”
“It’s outrage piled on outrage,” said Todd Henderson, who is Tara’s husband and a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.
Dr. Nausheen Zaidi, a physician at Advocate Health Care in the south suburbs, told the Herald that Lab School administrators, in not returning older students to in-person instruction in the fall, were “taking advantage that [parents] will continue to stay silent.”
“I think it’s more than past time that they need to start all of us, the whole school, back in person now,” Zaidi said. “Not a month from now, not in the fall.”
What’s the Endgame?
“I think one of the biggest frustrations is a lack of clarity,” said Oliver, the political science professor. He explained that at a recent parent forum last Sunday, the administration refused to say what the criteria will be for resuming in-person instruction for middle- and high-school students, or whether they have any plans to reopen next fall. “Having our children submitted to another year of remote learning is just really untenable for a lot of us,” he said.
Indeed, in an email from university professors and Lab students to the vice provost who oversees the Laboratory School, fed-up parents said they will be forced to look at other options for their children’s education if things don’t change. The email pointed out that this would be a major drawback for the university since the Lab School is a pull for professors to stay at UChicago.
After the forum, parents received word that the university had just hired a new director of the Laboratory School, Victoria Jueds. In the announcement email to parents, University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer did not say whether Jueds has a plan to reopen school. Instead, he boasted that “the Search Advisory Committee was impressed by her deep commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
With vaccinated teachers, there is no reason for the Lab School to remain closed. Children are no more in danger from COVID than they are the seasonal flu. It’s a shame limited vaccine doses have been wasted on teachers who are not teaching, and could have been given to elderly, black South Side residents who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Public and private teachers unions are getting their way at the expense of Chicago students’ education and mental health, in addition to weary parents and vulnerable members of the community.
Lab School is unique, however, in that there is a powerful movement of prominent parents fighting for their children. Parents of Lab School students include renowned doctors and esteemed academics whom the school has a vested interest in keeping. Parents who attend Chicago Public Schools do not have the same outsized influence or so-called privilege, as the left likes to call it. While powerful Lab School parents might be able to keep up enough pressure and ultimatums for their demands to be met, too many public school students, particularly from poor and working-class families on Chicago’s South Side, are completely at the mercy of anti-science teachers’ unions.
This story was originally published in the Chicago Thinker.