Many Chicago students have had to face the unthinkable during the pandemic — serious illness or even death of a parent, grandparent, or other close family member. Normal routines have been disrupted. Some had to take on jobs or shoulder other responsibilities because family members were ill and/or unable to work.

While some students flourished during remote learning, many struggled with isolation from friends and teachers. Educators also struggled — to learn new platforms, to find creative tools to engage students and to deal with the stress and trauma of the pandemic through a computer screen. The pandemic denied students and their teachers the normal human interactions on which a school day is built and has driven greater student disregulation and trauma at the same time that Chicago’s Black and Brown students confront unprecedented violence and trauma in their neighborhoods.

As difficult as remote learning was, it saved countless lives. Keeping students and staff out of the congregate setting that school is — the germ factory that classrooms can be on a good day — kept students, their families, their teachers and their teachers’ families safe. Our union harbors no doubts about the need to shutter schools in March of 2020 and to stay and/or switch to remote learning during the last two years as needed to keep our school communities safe.

The challenge today is dealing with the stress, trauma and havoc the pandemic has wreaked — on top of the trauma our students already confronted as a result of chronic civic disinvestment and neglect of public schools and whole communities, particularly communities of color, in Chicago. The Surgeon General issued a statement that validated what teachers and parents have been seeing, pointing out:

“The pandemic … disrupted the lives of children and adolescents, such as in-person schooling, in-person social opportunities with peers and mentors, access to health care and social services, food, housing, and the health of their caregivers.”

But, those disruptions were not felt equally by all students: “The pandemic’s negative impacts most heavily affected those who were vulnerable to begin with, such as youth with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ youth, low-income youth, youth in rural areas, youth in immigrant households, youth involved with the child welfare or juvenile justice systems, and homeless youth.”

“It’s impossible to keep up with the number of students who need support,” Mary Difino, School social worker, Piccolo Elementary

COVID’s long-term impacts are unknown. But we already see the impacts from the necessary isolation, the sickness or death of relatives, and the job loss and housing/food insecurity faced by so many. The increased stress brought depression, sleeping problems, and substance misuse to many households.

Teachers and other school workers have observed negative impacts of the pandemic on students, in general, as well as on particular student groups. These observations are thoroughly documented in the report: Education in a Pandemic: The Disparate Impacts of COVID19 on America’s Students.

That report found, among other things, that COVID appears to have deepened the impact of disparities in access and opportunity facing many students of color in public schools, including technological and other barriers that make it harder to stay engaged in virtual classrooms and the loss of school-based services.

The pandemic has disrupted services for students with disabilities, whose families struggled to ensure students were able to access their federally mandated educations even before the pandemic. The pandemic has also placed lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) students at increased risks for anxiety and stress, as they lost regular access to affirming student organizations and supportive peers, teachers, and school staff.

Chicago students also face heightened stress from the violence plaguing their neighborhoods. They have seen loved ones and peers gunned down — even with their hands in the air — by a police force that is rarely held accountable for its abusive actions.

“I’ve lost more students than years I’ve been teaching,” Dave Stieber, Social studies teacher, Kenwood High School

Throughout the spring and summer of 2022, the desire to return to normal was palpable — despite new, more contagious variants, rising infection rates and stagnant vaccination rates. But our students and their families could not just go “back to normal.” To help students recover from both pandemic and violence-induced trauma, they needed much better than normal.


To provide the social and emotional support our students need to address their trauma, the mayor should:

  • Reopen the city mental health clinics shuttered by the mayor’s predecessor. Vacant, closed school buildings could be used for this purpose.
  • Direct CPS to establish school-based mental health clinics staffed by mental health professionals and ensure that school discipline policies are trauma informed and supportive.
  • Ensure every school has enough social workers and counselors to meet their profession’s standards and provide them with training in trauma-informed care.
  • Direct CPS to establish partnerships with community based organizations providing mental health services.
  • Back up Chicago’s status as a “sanctuary city” with sanctuary schools staffed with social workers and support staff to assist young people facing trauma, including the trauma of poverty.
  • Step up the hiring and permanent staffing of critical workers to help students address trauma, from restorative justice coordinators to social workers accessible to every student.
  • Support the Treatment Not Trauma ordinance, which calls for non-police responses to mental health crises and more funding for public mental health centers across Chicago.