Does Parker’s Upper School Still Exist?

Parker Trails Behind Other Private Schools’ Plans for In-Person Learning

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Photo credit: Maddy Leja

“Parker Knows Best — No Private Chats, Little Communication, Confusing Schedule.” Cartoon by cartoonist Maddy Leja.

It has been over six and a half months since July 10 when Principal Dan Frank ‘74 wrote to the school community, “Parker will open school on campus for all students, five days a week, within the scope of normal school hours for the 2020–21 academic year,” and it has been 322 days since our embryonic democracy was last fully assembled on March 13, 2020. Parker has made so many claims and false promises of a return to school, that the confidence once held in the administration has now evaporated. The mental health of students is deteriorating, and the pandemic has not improved significantly which makes the possibility of a full return to campus feel far from the foreseeable future. “Being isolated [for this long] is very difficult… It is so hard for you all,” Evelina Pereira-Webber, a Parker parent emeritus and a child psychotherapist said.

The winter spike in cases that we are seeing was not a surprise to anybody and plans should have been made accordingly. Before Parker’s school year had even started,  Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases had said, “We need to hunker down and get through this… winter, because it’s not going to be easy.” Dr. Fauci knew before school started that the number of cases during the winter would be much higher than the numbers in the fall. It feels like Parker looked at the good numbers Illinois had during the fall and assumed or hoped that the COVID-19 numbers would decrease or stay the same in the winter, even though that was not likely. 

Parker chose to start the school year with the entire high school participating in remote learning with no solid plans for a return to school. The school was well aware of the predicted winter spike and knew it was going to raise an issue in implementing in-person learning or social activities during the colder months, yet the administration did not act swiftly in the fall and failed to get the high school students back in the building. Now, many upper school students are at a mental breaking point with the administration’s failure to act. “Online school has gotten to a point where staring at a screen has become very challenging both physically and emotionally, and I know that many people that I’ve talked to feel the same way as me,” said sophomore Max Keller.  If the administration doesn’t take significant action to give the high school students some semblance of in-person learning, students’ mental health will just continue on the dangerously sinking trajectory that it’s already on. “ I think for adolescents your age being in high school, it’s extremely hard to not be in-person and to not have in-person interactions because I think that’s the way that students in your age group learn the best,” Pereira-Webber said.

In addition to the effects of the biggest decision — to delay in-person learning for the upper school — even small decisions that the school makes, like the choice to disable private chatting between students, has a major impact on the Parker community’s ability to socially connect.  For example, by choosing to disable private chats between students on all Parker licensed Zoom accounts, the school has made it virtually impossible for students who don’t have each other’s phone numbers to engage with one another, and has alienated new students even further from veteran Parker students. Without the chat feature, there is no way to have a quick private conversation or even to exchange phone numbers without sharing the information with everyone in the class. “I think it’s pretty hard for people your age. I think that they are reaching out more for therapy because people are getting more anxious and not sleeping so well,” Pereira-Webber said.

One of the claims that has frequently been made by the administration is that the Upper School returning to campus isn’t safe. Again for a medical matter, I will turn to the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Fauci who said, “If you look at the data, the spread among children and from children is not really very big at all, not like one would have suspected.”

Parker is very much in the minority of private schools in terms of not letting all of its students back on campus for the first semester, even if only for a limited degree. Schools similar to Parker all over the country have granted their students some experiences on campus. “In-person learning for me has definitely been a relief to finally be able to see my friends face-to-face instead of on a screen. It’s also been a relief that our school has looked out for both our mental health and physical safety and has given us the option to be in-person some days,” Grey Raphaely a student at The Little Red School House, a progressive JK- 12 private school in New York City, said. One school in the Chicago area that managed to open with their students on campus every other day is Loyola Academy. Molly Hoey, a student there said, “I’m so happy that Loyola is in-person, and I always feel very safe when I’m on campus. It is much better than online learning because I feel like I’m learning so much more, and I’m very glad I get to see my friends.” In addition to many other Chicago area schools, Latin has also been able to have their Upper School students on campus since the beginning of the year. Their current model allows students to be on campus for half of a day, five days a week. 

On January 8, Head of Upper School Justin Brandon released a communication detailing a plan that allows Parker students to return to in-person learning for two half-days every 10 school days. “I’m really excited to go back into school. Since I’m new to Parker, I can’t wait to see all my classmates and teachers in-person,” Quinn Kass, a new-to-Parker freshman, said. Although this plan is better than no in-person learning time, many students feel frustrated that along with the in-person learning time came many major changes to the upper school’s operating procedures and schedule. “The most frustrating aspect of the entire in-person school process is the lack of communication. Students haven’t been polled or given the opportunity to share their beliefs on this issue since early fall and that shows in the student outrage,” Student Body President, senior Carter Wagner said. 

Parker Upper School students are desperately in need of a reprieve that only the administration can provide. “Kids are getting more anxious and are really turned off by being on Zoom,” Pereira-Webber said. I wish our administrators stopped treating us like we are the least important part of the “Parker Community” and instead would start legitimately caring about the social-emotional needs of students — a concept that they spend so much time talking about. 

According to the Parker website, “We pursue educational excellence by cultivating creative problem-solving through vigorous effort so all can experience joy in learning and come to understand how individual and collective labor can improve society.” Although the school claims that this statement is part of Parker’s core philosophy, they have yet to fulfill it this year. If they were genuinely concerned about putting an immense amount of effort into creatively problem-solving this situation, then some upper school students would have been on campus on September 9th.  According to Middle and Upper School Director of Studies Sven Carlsson, “Another priority goal is we like being together because we’re not a virtual school. We weren’t before COVID-19. We won’t be after COVID-19. We are an in-person school, and we like being a community together. I think it’s a question of as soon as we can safely be together we’ll be together.” Sadly, Carlsson’s statement only seems to apply to the JK-8 part of our model home despite many medical professionals deeming that attending school is a relatively safe activity. This administration seems to have forgotten that fwparker.zoom.us is not the same thing as 330 West Webster Ave.