Our Work to Support Chicago—Now and in the Future

April 23, 2020

By Rosa Ramirez Richter, Director of Chicago Programs + Policy

For almost 20 years, we’ve worked in Chicago to ensure all students attend schools that provide access to health services, healthy school food, opportunities for physical activity, and support for mental health and well-being.

Our current approach in Chicago is two-fold: provide our stakeholders with the resources they need now to address the COVID-19 crisis and continue our work to address structural inequities and work toward a future where all Chicago students attend schools that provide access to health services, healthy school food, opportunities for physical activity, and support for mental health and well-being.

Providing Important Resources

In this moment, we’re providing our stakeholders with the resources they need to keep their families safe and healthy. We’re directing parents and families to emergency resources in their communities, shifting in-person events online and checking in directly with parents and schools.

We are providing parents with a wide variety of resources to help them support their children during this difficult time. Schools provide critical services like healthy food and health services—including mental health services—but also provide opportunities for physical activity that aren’t always possible at home. We’re providing resources and creative ideas for parents to encourage their kids to engage in physical activity. We’re also providing resources for teachers, school principals and custodial staff responsible for cleaning and maintaining schools

We’re also thinking about new ways to continue to build community. We’ve even been able to continue a parent cooking club with Tik Tok; parents share short videos of themselves making the dish they would have shared in person.

Continuing Our Important Work

When this pandemic subsides, the African-American and Latinx communities where we work will be more vulnerable than ever, and our work to prioritize children’s health and address health disparities will take on even more urgency. That’s why, where we can, we are continuing to move forward with the district on important policy issues related to student health and wellness, crucial school health services, healthy school food and green schoolyards.

For example, we’re continuing to work with schools to ensure their school improvement plans address physical, social, emotional and behavioral health. These plans set priorities for resources like school funding.

We’re also continuing to build new Space to Grow schoolyards. Although school buildings and playgrounds are closed, elements of the Space to Grow schoolyards, including tracks and turf fields, are still being used responsibly for outdoor activities and the schoolyards we’re building, which are prioritized for under-invested African-American and Latinx communities in Chicago, will provide benefits for students, communities and our city as a whole for years to come.

Looking Toward a More Equitable Chicago

The current crisis is also drawing more attention to the health disparities and structural inequities that are part of everyday life in Chicago.

For example, while 29 percent of the city’s residents are African-American, 70 percent of those who have died from COVID-19 have been black. Data for Latinx deaths are inaccurate or delayed, which provides an unclear picture of how the virus affects this population. These devastating gaps represent the cumulative effect of disparities in health, education and wealth.

To dive deeper into just one of these disparities, studies have shown that neighborhoods on the West and South sides—where people of color are a majority—experience worse air pollution than areas of the city with a majority of white residents. At the same time, a study has already shown that more exposure to air pollution is linked to a higher death rate from COVID-19.

We have learned in the past few weeks that our city and country are ready and willing to invest in communities when pressed. Now is the time to talk about how Chicago can make a similar, permanent investment to support children and families and close the gaps and disparities in health, education and wealth.

The work we’ve been doing in Chicago for nearly two decades aims to create a more equitable future where all students attend schools that support their health and wellness. We are working hard to make this a reality—both now and when schools reopen.