The current Chicago Public Schools mess is a perfect microcosm of this country’s increasingly boneheaded handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

I’ll put it in the form of a parable: A group of people see a bear charging toward them. They’ve dealt with a similar bear before and know what needs to be done to minimize the impending mauling. With ample time to prepare, the group fractures. Some pretend the bear isn’t there at all and refuse to accept an effective spritz of bear repellent. Others assume the bear will be different this time and might just go away. Some think getting mauled is the only way to avoid a future mauling. Some smartly take cover. And some just let the bear maul them, wondering, as their toes get snacked on, why the heck they hadn’t planned for this in advance.

Even before the omicron variant started spreading, anyone paying attention to the nature of the pandemic knew the weeks following the end-of-year holidays were going to be problematic. Then once omicron hit America, doing to us exactly what it was already doing to other countries, Chicago Public Schools officials and Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her administration had to know the month of January would be even worse than expected.

They should have been prepared. They should have openly communicated with parents, who are rightly exhausted and fed up with remote learning, and readied them for the almost inevitable disruption of in-person classes. They should have spent the time since the last period of remote learning making sure there was a plan to provide the most robust, accessible remote learning options possible, a plan that would accommodate students who need added help or access to the space or the equipment necessary to continue learning.

Instead, like much of the nation, the focus was on “getting back to normal.” That’s good, of course. We need to do all we can to get back to a semblance of pre-pandemic life. And at this point virtually everyone agrees that a top priority is keeping kids in school for in-person learning.

But that desire for normalcy doesn’t jibe with the unpredictability of a virus. The problem we’ve had, almost from the start, is a lack of patience and an unwillingness to accept that sometimes our understanding of new things evolves, and circumstances change.

First we were told masks weren’t necessary, then we were told they’re crucial. That’s because scientists developed a better understanding of how the virus is transmitted, but many took it as, “Well, they don’t know what they’re talking about and I don’t want to wear one of those face diapers anyway!”

The vaccines were good at preventing the spread of earlier variants, but the omicron variant has proven better at infecting vaccinated people. So some see that and as evidence vaccines don’t work, totally ignoring the fact that vaccinated people who get COVID-19 rarely need to be hospitalized.

The pandemic seemed to be receding, but now, with omicron and the colder winter months, it has surged again. Some can’t handle that concept and say we just need to open up everything and live our lives.

That’s what many are saying about the public schools in Chicago: “How dare they shut down again! Open it up! Even if my kids gets COVID-19, they’ll be fine.”

The words “my kids” are at the heart of this country’s problem, and the reason we’re all but destined to continue struggling with this virus.

My kids will be fine. I’ll be fine. I’m not worried about it.

First off, anyone who thinks that is likely right. Most kids will be fine if they get COVID, especially if they’re vaccinated. And undoubtedly most kids are better off in real classrooms, around their peers and face-to-face with real teachers.

But the health and fate of your kids isn’t the lone factor in this equation.

Only a bit more than half of CPS students ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated, and only 12% of students 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated. If you bring all those kids back into schools right now, the wildly contagious omicron variant is going to spread, and it’s going to infect other kids as well as teachers, administrators and support staff.

Again, your kids may be just fine. But it will quickly become impossible to keep the school open because you’re going to have too many adults out sick. Kids will get sick as well, and they’ll go home and spread it to other adults who may then have to miss work, and on and on it goes.

It’s a lousy situation. Pandemics, befitting their scary sounding name, tend to be less than ideal.

But we knew this was coming. The fact that school officials and the Lightfoot administration seemed focused solely on keeping kids in class explains why parents and students are currently having to wrestle this bear.

I can’t stand the back-and-forth sniping between the Chicago Teachers Union, CPS, parents and the mayor. The singular focus should be on providing help and education to the kids of Chicago, be it in-person or virtual. And any parents who haven’t gotten their kids vaccinated and are now complaining need to sit in a corner and think about their lack of action.

Nobody’s desire for normalcy is going to stop this virus, and no “damn the torpedoes” attitude is going to stop teachers and support staff from getting sick, making in-person teaching impossible anyway.

The best thing CPS officials could have done is what many colleges and universities are doing, which is the same thing Chicago teachers are demanding: Recognize the omicron/post-holiday surge, go virtual for a couple weeks to weather the storm and then return in person with the hope of keeping classes going with consistency.

If the people running things had picked that path sooner, they could have done more to prepare parents and make sure all children, regardless of their needs, had a chance to learn. Instead, we have an ongoing educational mess that makes the adults look dumb and the students look like afterthoughts.

This omicron wave isn’t likely to be the last bear that comes charging.

The sooner we agree being flexible and prepared is the best approach, the sooner we stop striving for normalcy in abnormal times, the less time we’ll all waste arguing while the bear gobbles us up.


Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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