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Parents voice frustration as they deal with fallout of Chicago teachers' strike

From Casey Wian, Chris Welch and Greg Botelho, CNN
updated 11:31 AM EDT, Tue September 11, 2012
  • NEW: Some parents hire an ex-teacher to teach a dozen kids in a home's basement
  • NEW: A single mother of six says she had to take off work to watch her children
  • Other children go to activities in schools, churches, parks and elsewhere
  • "There is ... frustration, foremost," one mother says

Chicago (CNN) -- It was just after 10 o'clock on Sunday night, the kids fast asleep, when the news came down: There would be no school in Chicago on Monday, and for who knows how much longer.

"There is ... frustration, foremost," said Sarah Liebman, the mother of two children in city schools. "It's really affecting the kids right now."

Liebman is one of the parents of the roughly 350,000 Chicago public school students who had to scramble at the last minute to find some place for their kids to go Monday morning after the 30,000-member strong Chicago Teachers Union announced they'd go on strike.

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In the wee hours Sunday, she worked the phones to figure out somewhere her 4-year-old son could spend the next day while she and her husband went to work. Ultimately, she arranged for her youngest to be with his best friend, similar to what the family earlier had set up for their oldest child, in sixth grade.

Her kids, Liebman said, are excited to have time off and curious to see teachers picketing outside schools instead of working inside them. But for Liebman and other parents, sentiments about the strike were more likely to be anger, resentment and anxiety now that their lives and their children's educations were being turned upside down, with no end in sight.

"I don't understand how the few issues ... left on the table have remained stagnant, and they haven't come to a decision," Norma Cotto, the mother a sophomore at Schurz High School, told HLN. "It's baffling."

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Ahead of the strike, the Chicago Public Schools crafted a plan -- one criticized sharply by union leaders -- trying to give parents like Liebman options until teachers return to work.

The city's famed public transit system is offering free rides for students to move between so-called "safe haven" sites.

Chicago's parks department resumed camp-style sports, art and nature programs at dozens of its locations, while the public library system set aside computers in its facilities for students to use. Cotto said she sent her daughter to one such library to get books to read, in hopes the high school sophomore doesn't "miss an educational beat."

A group of parents in one city neighborhood banded together, hiring a former teacher to instruct about a dozen children. Their makeshift class commenced around 9 a.m. Monday in the basement of one of their homes.

"It's disruptive because we don't know what the curriculum requires," said Leonard Becker, who has children in the group. "We are sort of guessing. We want to keep their minds active and keep them engaged in something."

Dozens of churches and civic organizations offered activities to children Monday, hoping to give parents' options by keeping their kids off the streets. So, too, did about a quarter of the city schools, although they only had skeletal staffs and limited resources.

Altgeld Elementary School, on the city's South Side, was one of those places open -- although the vibe was anything but bustling, as it would have been on any other Monday.

Only a handful of parents and children showed up at Altgeld, one of the 144 opened by Chicago school administrators to provide a secure place for children to spend breakfast time and lunchtime off the streets.

"That's the only safe haven they really have right now," said Valicia Hill, a single mother with six children, five of whom attend public schools in the city.

Hill didn't go to her job as a beautician Monday, staying home to watch her kids. In addition to her concerns about their education and losing out on her pay, the single mother said she's worried that a prolonged strike will lead to no good, especially in high-crime areas.

Voices of the Chicago Public Schools strike

"A lot of kids are out on the streets, and that's setting them up for trouble and violence," Hill said. "They need to be in school right now, doing something productive."

Some parents excoriated educators for putting themselves first, ahead of their students. Others supported teachers in their quest for better pay, working conditions and job security.

Whatever their opinion on the strike, there's only one thing every parent seems to agree on: School should be in session.

"The kids need to be in school every day if they can," said Veronica Gordon, whose adult son had to take the day off from his job as a chef to take care of his three children.

Becker, who has four children in Chicago elementary schools, said he is interested in a deal being reached, not in taking sides. A few days of strike would be bearable, he said, but anything longer would be destructive to all involved -- Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the union and especially students.

"I just know that parents will just put up with so much, maybe a week is the threshold," said Becker, noting he understands complaints about the stances of school officials and union leaders. "I would be sorely disappointed."

While many parents are already upset, that does not mean they didn't see the walkout coming. The teachers union authorized a strike back in June, and its leaders have been very public and animated since with their feelings about the school system's positions.

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"People were not surprised," said Liebman.

While she had to scramble to find child care for her young son, Liebman said her family took the preemptive step of registering her sixth-grade daughter, in advance, for one of the "strike camps" being set up around the city. Still, that art camp only runs for three days this week and there are no plans in place should the strike extend beyond that.

Liebman said she and many other parents are doing their best to deal with the strike's fallout, as if parenting young children in normal circumstances isn't challenge enough. What's happening now is posing a major challenge to thousands, especially with the future so uncertain and out of parents' control.

"We are preparing day by day," Liebman said. "We really hope that tomorrow our kids can return to school."

Ryan sides with Emanuel on Chicago strike

CNN's Casey Wian and Chris Welch reported from Chicago and Greg Botelho from Atlanta. CNN's Michael Pearson contributed to this report.

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