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Health & Science

As Chicago Schools Reopen, Teacher Scrambles To Keep Kids Safe

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to Chicago, the country's third-largest school district, which plans to gradually start bringing students back to school this week. But given the current state of the pandemic, that makes some teachers nervous, like preschool teacher Kirstin Roberts.

KIRSTIN ROBERTS: So I was terrified, honestly, to see the reopening of schools in a school system like the Chicago Public Schools, which is really comprised of students who have been the hardest hit, who have been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic. But, you know, I talked to my colleagues and - who were the other preschool teachers who are being called back into the building, and we also don't want to lose our jobs. And what we decided to do was to show up at our school building but to teach - to continue to teach remotely outside.

MARTIN: This alternative plan is not without controversy. Chicago teachers could face disciplinary actions if they don't show up to teach in the classroom, which could lead to firings. And they can lose pay. Then there's the issue of teaching outside in the middle of a Chicago winter.

ROBERTS: It was cold (laughter). It was cold, and it started to snow just a little bit in the middle of it. It was about 28 degrees, I think. But it started to - you know, flurries, not heavy snow. And we had these blankets. And there's this picture of me - because the media was there. There's this one picture of me that appeared, and I've got this, like, blanket covering myself and my computer like I'm in a tent, and I'm teaching in the middle of this. And you know what was going through my head in the middle of that? - was, oh, my God, I'm going to get fired, and they're going to charge me for a new computer because the snow is going to short this thing out. So I was really trying to protect that piece of equipment.

MARTIN: Despite the challenges, Kirstin Roberts says that her colleagues and the community are committed to keeping people safe. She says the support has made remote teaching more bearable.

ROBERTS: We showed up to teach remotely outside, and they were there, too. Even though they didn't have to come in to work, they chose to do their remote learning day outdoors with us. And they had helped organize things like a parent meal train. So parents were bringing us coffee and hot chocolate and warm soup. They had put out the call for people to bring those little backyard firepits and wood, and people did that. Folks from the community even who are not parents at our school heard about us on the radio and came and dropped us off hand-warmers.

MARTIN: As a preschool teacher, Kirstin Roberts' job is especially challenging because students in her class usually have never been to school before. And the curriculum is very hands-on, which is a challenge during remote learning. Still, she says she's found ways to cope.

ROBERTS: So we said, you know, next week, bring a cardboard box. And we spent several days just exploring what a cardboard box could become and encouraging imaginative play. And so, you know, we had our own cardboard boxes that we climbed inside of and modeled how we were pretending. And we really didn't have to model it because the kids were so immediately drawn to the possibility and potential of what a cardboard box could be transformed into. It was beautiful. You know, they became pirate ships and race cars and trains and houses and caves.

MARTIN: Kirstin Roberts says she hopes to get back into the classroom when she thinks it's safe. And she told us that she plans to continue putting pressure on the school board to make the classroom safe for everyone to return.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.