What’s really behind New Trier High School’s controversial re-opening plan?
As the parent of a suburban Chicago high schooler whose education is currently 100% remote, I’m grateful our superintendent made the decision to prioritize the health and safety of our entire community over any demands to reopen during a global pandemic.
But recently, a friend requested that I share his urgent story about a nearby suburban Chicago high school just one town north of ours. He asked that I not share his name (or his family’s), and in a moment, you’ll understand why. I’ll refer to him as Bob.
“Please Don’t Share Our Real Names”
Bob tells me that their partner, who teaches at nearby New Trier High School, has been (like all of their colleagues) working remotely since early last spring when the Illinois lockdown began.
However, Bob says, starting Tuesday of next week (10/6/2020), students at New Trier High School (NTHS) will attend in-person class on a rotating schedule with 25% of the students in the building at a time. Bob says, “This amounts to about four days in person for each student per month, while staff are being forced into the building every day.” Bob says, “Staff will be exposed to about 1,000 students and co-workers on varied days, making their exposure a daily onslaught of germs carried and spread by a new population of students each day.”
Bob tells me that NTHS’s “Re-opening Advisory Board” was created in August, and that four teachers and several parents, staff, and students are on the committee. Bob adds that, despite their questions and objections to the opening plan, “none of the committee members have any actual power. The Superintendent decides what the plan will be.”
As for personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff, Bob tells me “hand sanitizer and masks are being provided. Plexiglas barriers have been placed throughout the school, and there are signs reminding students to social distance. However,” Bob says, “students are expected to clean their desks and chairs between classes. There is no staff assigned to cleaning classes between periods because there isn’t enough time. There are no clear consequences for what will happen when students are non-compliant with social distancing, mask-wearing, or cleaning. There is also no clear plan for who will be responsible for ensuring student compliance,” and adds that “parts of the building have older ventilation systems that circulate air between other classrooms.”
“Students are expected to clean their desks and chairs between classes. There is no staff assigned to cleaning classes between periods because there isn’t enough time. There are no clear consequences for what will happen when students are non-compliant with social distancing, mask-wearing, or cleaning. There is also no clear plan for who will be responsible for ensuring student compliance.”
Bob adds that, “No temperatures will be taken for entry to the school. The entire safety system is reliant on an app that asks students and staff to self-report their current health status.” And, Bob adds, “As you know, across the country, parents have been lying and/or sending their kids to school sick and even Covid-positive.”
Additionally, Bob says, “Dozens of NTHS students on sports teams are playing in out of state tournaments — even in states that Illinois has identified as high-incident. Therefore, once a human has visited that state, they are required to quarantine for 14 days.”
Bob tells me that “all cleaning staff, librarians, administrative staff, etc., are required to be in the building full-time, daily. Staff who work with students who have special needs have already been in the building with some students for weeks.”
I asked Bob for a sample schedule for New Trier High School teachers. This is what Bob sent me:
“We have no second home for my partner to live in,” Bob tells me. “When my partner asked about a stipend or assistance with rental costs due to having to move out of our home, my partner was told that the district is not even considering that.”
Bob says, “Though the families of students are allowed to choose remote learning (and truly — given that kids will only attend school for 4 days per month with extreme restrictions in place, for all intents and purposes, students are still remotely learning), all staff are being forced into the buildings daily. Though some staff have been granted accommodations, it appears that these have been extremely limited.” Bob says that NTHS Human Resources insisted “the only example they were willing to share in regards to those who have been granted accommodations are staff who have co-morbidities themselves or live with family members who are undergoing chemotherapy.”
Bob says that the NTHS superintendent “chose an arbitrary threshold of 8% positivity rate in a catchment area that includes Chicago in order to make certain that the school won’t close (for staff — as it really isn’t open to students more than 4 days a month) even if the positivity rates rise over the next month.” Bob says, “The choice of an 8% positivity rate applies to staff, largely because most of them don’t live in the NTHS district because it’s too expensive.”
“Currently,” Bob says, “there are 13 staff members who are either in quarantine or tested positive for Covid-19, as well as 25 students. This,” Bob adds, “before the school has even opened.”
Who — And What’s — Behind The Push To Open New Trier?
According to Bob, “The families involved with the Open New Trier group have spent money sending individual letters to NTHS families’ homes urging them to put pressure on the school.” Bob also points to an option on the online form that allows parents to substitute teach. “This is a wildly inappropriate plan that negates teacher’s expertise and the very argument that students need good educations and can’t get it online from teachers,” Bob says. He adds, “They also took great pains to make this look like it comes from the school, matching the look of the school website. Even I made that assumption before opening it.”
Bob says it’s also worth mentioning that “A new board member of New Trier Neighbors, Ted Dabrowski, has interesting ties to the current administration. Bob describes him as “a wealthy man” and that he “has been a part of a powerful, small group of parents who have pressured the school to include ‘alternate curricula’ on subjects that describe how groups have been marginalized or oppressed historically.”
A note from Bob to me:
“Christine, as you know, my partner is a staff member at NTHS. They have petitioned and been denied the right to work remotely. Though my partner is healthy, if they contract Covid-19, they’re in a dangerous age range for those who contract it and die. The bigger issue for us is that we have four family members who either live with us or we are the sole supports for — that have co-morbidities.
Although we submitted three letters from doctors, Human Resources said that my partner could consider an unpaid leave or come back to work on 10/6.
My partner spoke to a co-worker who had applied for accommodations to teach remotely and was told by Human Resources that, ‘Your job comes before family.’ Another co-worker confided that 70% of the staff they supervise requested accommodations. Only ten were granted accommodations, and these were all due to health conditions of the staff member themselves. The issue seems to be not only that the community is pressuring staff to be in the building, but that the Board has no interest in spending their hefty budget on substitute staffing.”
These days, situations like that of Bob’s partner are increasingly common, but is there an even deeper story?
A Billionaire Assault On Democracy In America?
Just after the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump, citizen journalist and father of five Paul Traynor created a movement — including a website, podcast, and blog — called The Long Con: How Wealthy Elites Are Destroying Democracy. From the website’s About page:
“The Long Con Podcast explores all aspects of the billionaire assault on democracy in America, an effort which began at the end of World War II and was joined in earnest in 2009, following the election of Barack Obama. A small group of American oligarchs — composed of some of America’s most prominent families — have constructed a complex infrastructure of charitable groups and political entities that today serves as a de facto “shadow state”, controlling the levers of power not only in Washington, DC, but in state and local governments across America.
These unelected billionaires, and the vast network they fund and control, are engaged in a decades-long stealth campaign to dismantle & privatize all aspects of American government. The primary goal is to keep fortunes intact and business unregulated; their primary tools are racism and fear-mongering. This unaccountable juggernaut, which we call The Policy Combine, poses a clear and present danger to all Americans — and to the future of representative democracy, itself.
Using the language, psychology and tactics of American con artistry to explain these complex efforts, the Long Con shines a light on this blatant manipulation of the American political system…. and the relentless disinformation campaign that has enabled it to grow and thrive over time.
According to Traynor, episodes 1, 6 & 7 of his podcast deal explicitly with the parent activists (and, in his words, “paid political operatives”) being funded by dark money at New Trier High School.
If this is true, this is indeed a crazy, crazy story, one that belongs in the national news.
One of the primary movers spotlighted in Traynor’s podcast is Sylvie Légère Ricketts. Her husband, Todd Ricketts, was appointed as the Trump Administration’s Deputy Commerce Secretary (he later withdrew) and served as Republican National Committee’s finance chair; he now oversees fundraising for the Trump reelection campaign. Members of the Ricketts family, as many know, are majority owners of the Chicago Cubs — an organization which (many may not know) is partly owned by the DeVos family. Yes. As in the family of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Connecting The Dots
At this point, because there’s so much that I don’t know — and don’t understand — about the factors influencing schools to reopen right now, I’ll leave you to judge these issues (and individuals) for yourself.
What I do know for sure is this: During this ongoing global pandemic, my community’s high school is currently 100% remote, and I couldn’t be more grateful — or relieved.
In light of all we have yet to learn about COVID-19 and its lasting impact, we must ask ourselves two simple questions:
- Who’s behind reopening our schools?
- Who stands to win — and lose — the most if we do?
Christine Wolf is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach who lives near Chicago. Find more of her writing — and sign up for her newsletter— at www.christinewolf.com.