Privilege or passion? Parents feverish over D97's COVID plan

Efforts to return to class prompt calls of white privilege

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Last week, District 97 administrators announced that they plan on transitioning to hybrid learning from full remote learning by Nov. 30 — the first day of the second trimester. 

The announcement came after a swirl of controversy over petitions and rumors of protests as parents in D97 got more aggressive in their pushback against what they considered to be Supt. Carol Kelley's poor leadership and lack of communication amid the pandemic. 

But the parents' pushback provoked vocal counter-reactions from some community members, particularly Black and Brown leaders in Oak Park, who lauded Kelley's handling of the pandemic and said some parents' aggressive demands to return students to classrooms teemed with white privilege. 

Last week, before the district announced a target date for returning to some form of in-person learning, members of the closed Facebook group District 97 and District 200 Parents created two petitions lamenting Kelley's "leadership and the lack of any plan for a return-to-campus learning option," according to one of the petitions. 

That petition, which as of Oct. 6 had garnered 138 signatures, stated that while surrounding school districts in places like LaGrange, Hinsdale, Elmhurst and Wilmette had either started the school year with on-campus options or had finalized "real-time plans for a transition" from remote learning to in-person learning, "Dr. Kelley and our School Board have had many meetings and conversations, but developed no actual plans." 

The petition cited data and a study to support that "statistically, there is very little risk to returning to school" before recommending Kelley and the school board "deliver a re-opening plan prioritizing young learners (K-2) by October 16th with a return to school by October 26th." 

The petition also called on the district to create a D97 Task Force that would "monitor and optimize our re-opening plan (integrated with reps from the D97 board, Teachers, Parents, Pediatricians and Infectious Disease Experts)," among other recommendations. 

A separate petition created last week called on the D97 school board to issue a vote of no confidence in Kelley. 

"Superintendent Carol Kelley continues to fail to share the strategy and an actionable plan for how District 97 students will return to the classroom," the petition states, before lamenting "the severe lack of transparency, failure to support meaningful engagement with all stakeholders including parents, teachers, and staff, and incapacity to lead our children through this pandemic with a solution-oriented and proactive leadership mindset." 

Less than a week after creating the online petition, its author took it down after receiving pushback from Black and Brown community leaders, who also lambasted reports that some parents had been planning to protest at Kelley's home. They also offered support for Kelley's handling of the COVID-19 crisis. 

Amanda Siegfried, D97's communications director, said that administrators were "made aware of a rumor that a group of parents were considering a protest," but that those plans were never confirmed. 

Mara Maas, a D97 parent and member of the closed District 97 and District 200 Parents Facebook group, said she was also aware of rumors about a planned protest at Supt. Kelley's home, but that the rumors were unfounded. 

Maas said that parents in the group "threw out ideas," such as having their students not log into Zoom, because the parents felt that their concerns weren't being heard by D97 administrators. 

Maas, a pediatrician, said the Facebook group was started after the pandemic arrived and around the time the district reversed its original decision of returning to schools based on a hybrid model to full remote learning. Maas had helped draft a petition earlier this year calling for students to return to classrooms, largely due to what she said are the detrimental effects of online learning on students. 

Maas said the author of the no-confidence petition posted an apology inside of the Facebook group. 

"He said he didn't want it to be a distraction to our efforts to get kids back to in-person learning," Maas said, adding that she doesn't know the man personally. "The fact that some people took his petition to have racist overtones — he was very upset by that and didn't want that to be part of the discussion. That was certainly not his intent. I believe him when he says that." 

But Oak Park's complicated racial dynamics had become a point of intense dialogue on Facebook not long after the no-confidence petition was created and as rumors of possible parent protests swirled. 

Makesha Flournoy-Benson, the founder and co-president of Oak Park Diversity Council — a group that promotes equity, inclusion and diversity in D97 schools — wrote in a Facebook post on Sept. 30 that the effort "by largely wealthy families" to push  Kelley and administrators to return students to in-person learning "is privilege at its best and it's sick." 

"I've lived in this community a very long time," wrote Gina Harris in a Facebook post on Oct. 1. Harris is a school board member at District 200 OPRF and also a climate and culture staff member at District 97. "What we keep seeing, these acts of aggression, whether they be personally directed towards leaders in our school districts, verbal assaults on people who don't look like you, continued denial of white supremacy culture in our very midst, is at the root of it all and we have to stop. And call it out." 

Harris added that "the administration in our school districts are both led by Black women. There is zero doubt in my mind that part of the continual questioning, lack of respect and outright intent to harm is brought about by an underlying belief that stems from white supremacy culture." 

Oak Park Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla wrote in an Oct. 1 Facebook post that D97's response to the pandemic "has been malleable — as it should be, with this ever evolving pandemic," before adding that "instead of fighting the situation, we could work to protect those most struggling. We could work to create new modalities of learning for [special needs students]. We could create new ways of tackling the opportunity gap in our schools. We could demand that every child's needs be met — not just ours." 

Some parents who were unsatisfied with the D97 administration's response said that a series of communications Kelley had released on Oct. 1 and Oct. 2 had helped to ameliorate their concerns. 

"Over the past 24 hours, a group of parents have questioned our decisions around opening," Kelley wrote in a letter to families on Oct. 1. "Our team has been cautious, yet focused on plans that can be sustained, to prevent future interruptions for our families. Further, we've been consistent in our goal of providing in-person learning options for all, to the extent that it's safe, by the beginning of the second trimester (November 30)." 

Kelley said that "there are a number of moving parts associated with reopening our buildings — scheduling, staff accommodations, finalizing safety protocols, etc.," before mentioning that the district sent a survey to staff members about plans to return to classrooms and that another survey will be sent to families this month to determine whether they prefer hybrid or full remote learning. 

She added that the district has started a "phased-in approach" to hybrid learning. Last month, the district allowed a small group of special education students in the district's "multi-needs program" to begin receiving on-site instruction and support at Percy Julian Middle School. And the district is working to bring in more groups, she said. 

Kelley said that administrators will share with parents a "framework for reopening" by Friday. 

"For now, we're pleased," said Maas. "There is definite forward progress. I'm definitely hoping that this Friday, we get a more concrete picture of both the plan and the timeline, but I do think having this is definitely a step in the right direction. A lot of us are happy with that." 

In her letter to families on Oct. 1, Kelley urged patience. 

"I realize that many are anxious to return to normalcy," she stated. "I am too, but I'm also committed to keeping all of your children and our teachers safe. All I ask is the same thing expected of anyone during times of trouble: Patience. Understanding. Grace. Our children are watching and learning from each of us. Let's show them our best selves." 

Contact:
Email: michael@oakpark.com

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Reader Comments

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Ramona Lopez  

Posted: October 10th, 2020 10:23 AM

@Anna Can you please provide evidence to your claim that "privileged folks want their kids back in school, and they are all screaming about equity as a reason". If anyone "weoponizes" equity, its you and your far left comrades. In fact, you "weaponize" it so much, you don't even know you are doing it. It's 2nd nature for you.

Anna Marie Navarro  

Posted: October 10th, 2020 12:10 AM

If remote learning hurts underprivileged families, then why did the vast majority of underprivileged families who responded to CPS's survey indicate that they wanted remote learning? Racism is brought into these conversations because it's present in every facet of the lives of BIPOC folks. And the fact remains that the privileged folks want their kids back in school, and they are all screaming about equity as a reason. But I've never seen one of them at any of the district DivCo meetings. They claim their stance is because they want equity, but are any of the underprivileged families they are claiming to represent present in these meetings? Have any of them thought about why these families indicated that they would rather be remote? Maybe, just maybe, it's because their communities were hit much harder by the pandemic than those of the wealthy white folks who want their kids out of their houses? Lets call a spade a spade here. The privileged folks in this community are trying to weaponize equity when it is convenient for them to get what they want. And it is gross.

Adam Yaws  

Posted: October 9th, 2020 7:22 PM

I've been very vocal against the current board and Dr. Kelley's performance over the last two years. While I know equity is important and she is driving that as much as humanly possible, her results have been poor to say the least. We've seen 7 principals across 2 schools in 4 years (only one retired, the rest moved on.) A middle school drop to underperforming during her tenure. Dr. Kelley has spent the last 2 years shopping her resume to other districts, and OP97 is far behind its peer districts (Evanston, Hinsdale, now D90) in returning to in-person education plans. The board has been nearly complacent with these results and powerless or unwilling to hold our admin to a high standard. Up until the last few weeks the admin has been near silent on releases and refused to answer parent questions despite multiple email/phone/lets chat requests. That has changed and the detailed weekly communications are much better and more thorough than ever.

Megan Dunn from Oak Park  

Posted: October 9th, 2020 10:54 AM

So, this article as well as the comments make me sad. As someone without a child in the district but with many friends and family who do as well as friends and family who work in the district this feels like humanity failing. We are in a pandemic, which means, there is no right answer. What is going to work best for you will probably be detrimental for someone else. What might sort of work for you will be the only option that works for someone else. The idea that anyone can get this right is silly. I also find it fascinating that the article or the comments have both failed to even one time ask what the classroom teachers think. As a comparison, if I was suffering from Covid and I went to a hospital I wouldn't ask the CEO of the hospital for treatment, I'd ask they trained and educated doctors what I should do. Sure the administration plays a role in setting up the facilities hiring the best doctors and making sure supplies are on hand, but the person who is going to know what is best for the patient/student is the doctor/teacher. I'd be interested to hear from the educators themselves.

Shawn Calvert  

Posted: October 8th, 2020 4:06 PM

As a D97 parent, I think the administration has done a great job, and deserve our gratitude. Supt Kelley's recent email was the first we were aware of a vocal opposition to their opening plan. However, if you talk to anyone that has been a superintendent, taking grief from parents and board members is part of the job description. What about this group justifies a board member to declare it a movement of wealthy white supremacists? "Continual questioning" ?" what's wrong with that? these are serious decisions involving people's children ?" "Outright intent to harm", "verbal assaults" ?"?" ok, Wednesday Journal, this is a serious accusation by someone holding an elected position, we need some specifics on what this is in response to. In any case, I seriously doubt that D97 is helped by, needs or wants board members slandering parents on social media on their behalf.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: October 8th, 2020 11:11 AM

Wow. "Acts of aggression ? outright intent to harm ... verbal assaults on people who don't look like you ? it's sick." Whew! If I didn't know better, I'd be terribly worried that a group of parents was laying siege to the D97 headquarters building. But no, they were merely circulating a petition and protesting for a redress of grievances. Looks like the left gets to wear the stupid cap. At least for today.

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: October 8th, 2020 7:28 AM

The OPRF community cant tie their shoes without playing the race card. Sad. This town will never overcome racism because they are their own enemy. Far left has no other option but to play the race card.. Everybody has options. Deal with it.

Kelly Curry from Oak Park   

Posted: October 8th, 2020 5:34 AM

The angle that wealthy families are pushing for this doesn't add up. Wealthy families have options and resources like nannies and tutors to help their kids. They can afford to send their kids to the private schools or childcare centers that have remained open and somehow magically manage to successfully educate kids in person during this pandemic. Remote learning negatively effects middle and lower income families more. Parents who can't afford full-time childcare and can't afford not to work...with kids who are falling further and further behind their wealthy peers.

Gregg Kuenster  

Posted: October 7th, 2020 11:49 PM

Primary education has been functionally privatized on a mass scale. The sink-or-swim result has been predictable. Families with the resources to absorb the withdrawal of public services have kept their childrens' heads above water, and those who have not have been left to drown. 97 and 200 administrators are functionally saying "let them eat cake". Or in OPRF lingo " I run this school ya see (Bogart) ... I've got mine kids ... go scratch." And we wonder why our children have no ambition and we hate the immigrants who do our work. Immigrants are doing the work from janitor, lawn, paint, hammer to surgeons and programmers. Our children do not even want to put their lunch waste in the trash can. If an adult says anything to alert the kids to their failure...forgitaboutit = U R a scum Mister /// STFU or we will attack your home. Nice kids we are raising.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: October 7th, 2020 10:16 PM

Just want to make sure I get this straight. Kids who are "are not listened to" demonstrate on our village president's lawn and they are applauded by people like Ms. Flournoy-Benson and Arti. Students who walk out of school in protest following Anthony Clark like he is some pied piper of OPRF, again applauded by the masses. Rumors, yes only rumors abound that parents are merely "considering" a protest. Well that my friends is racist and simply another demonstration of privilege at its best. According to Ms. Harris, white people who show any concern towards black leadership in our school system is considered a verbal assault and is rooted in white supremacy. It appears all of the far left comrades don't desire equal treatment, they want special treatment. They don't want to end racism, they want to reverse it. This cultish like behavior where being white is an original sin and no matter what you white people do, or what you say, you will never be able to rid yourselves of it. 2 + 2 = 5

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: October 7th, 2020 1:52 PM

Leadership by sending surveys out is not leadership. The leaders have no idea how to lead. D97 is lame. The parents are unhappy customers. When they complain that is not aggression, it is desperation at the situation they find their families are trapped in.

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: October 7th, 2020 12:36 PM

Since this matter has quickly become about race (which of course is the lens often taken by this article's author) vs. the welfare of kids and the community, I found it interesting how this almost completely contrasts with the debate going on in Evanston right now, with the high school's African American superintendent PUSHING for the prioritized return of students of color to the physical classrooms. Striking how 2 very opposite strategies are viewed as correct AND racist by those in their respective communities. https://www.wsj.com/articles/can-school-be-antiracist-a-new-superintendent-in-evanston-ill-has-a-plan-11601982001

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