Catholic school teachers ‘terrified,’ call on archdiocese to move school fully online

Hundreds of teachers from schools across the archdiocese say they are fearful of returning to school in-person and have reached out to Arise Chicago, an interfaith workers’ rights organization to express their concerns.

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James Cahill a teacher at St. Francis Xavier in Wilmette, speaks to reporters outside the offices of the Archdiocese of Chicago, demanding that the Archdiocese of Chicago reverse in person learning in Chicago area schools and go to remote learning amid the Coronavirus pandemic, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

James Cahill, a teacher at St. Francis Xavier in Wilmette, speaks to reporters outside the offices of the Archdiocese of Chicago demanding that the archdiocese go to fully remote learning.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A group representing hundreds of teachers and parents with the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools Thursday called for all fall classes at the parochial school system to be held online.

“Now is the wrong time to gather hundreds of human beings into enclosed spaces,” James Cahill, a history and religion teacher at Wilmette’s St. Francis Xavier School, said at a news conference outside the archdiocese’s downtown offices, at 835 N. Rush St.

“The decision to do so boggles the mind, defies science and potentially endangers the lives of students, teachers, staff, and all of our families and communities.”

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In an email to families earlier this month, Catholic Schools Supt. Jim Rigg said the archdiocese is starting the school year with full-time in-person learning, saying it’s “in the best interests of children and our mission.”

Some archdiocese schools have already started classes while others have yet to open.

Cahill was joined by another teacher, a parent and members of Arise Chicago, an interfaith workers’ rights organization, in demanding that Catholic schools have no in-person classes this fall and that teachers are consulted before a new reopening plan is crafted.

The “Arch Teachers for a Safe Return” group, which represents hundreds of teachers, is giving the archdiocese until Tuesday to respond.

The Rev. C.J. Hawking with Arise Chicago, speaks to reporters outside the offices of the Archdiocese of Chicago, demanding that the Archdiocese of Chicago reverse in person learning in Chicago area schools and go to remote learning amid the Coronavirus pandemic, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The Rev. C.J. Hawking with Arise Chicago said the interfaith workers’ rights organization has heard from hundreds of teachers terrified to return to school in-person.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Concerned teachers who have reached out to Arise Chicago said they can’t imagine teaching in-person when they’re fearful of being near students, said the Rev. C.J. Hawking, Arise Chicago’s executive director. One teacher described the thought of returning to a physical school building as “mental trauma,” Hawking said. “Teachers are terrified and hurting and angry,” she said.

The archdiocese’s reopening plan, updated July 30, requires everyone older than 2 to wear a mask indoors and mandates temperature checks before students enter school buildings. For Catholic school students whose parents are unwilling to send them to in-person classes, the archdiocese is also offering remote and online learning.

But many of the archdiocese’s teachers and parents would rather have everyone stay inside their homes instead of that being an option for a few.

“My concern about my school and any schools is the ability to truly follow the strongest scientific guidelines for the entire school day,” said Lauren Welsh, a sixth grade language arts teacher at Immaculate Conception—St. Joseph School on the Near North Side.

“At the end of the day, how can any in-person learning be safe until you have a baseline of testing?”

Lauren Welsh a teacher at Immaculate Conception St. Joseph School on the Near North Side, speaks to reporters outside the offices of the Archdiocese of Chicago, demanding that the Archdiocese of Chicago reverse in person learning in Chicago area schools and go to remote learning amid the Coronavirus pandemic, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Lauren Welsh, a teacher at Immaculate Conception—St. Joseph School on the Near North Side, said she doesn’t want her school to become the next COVID-19 hotspot.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“Outbreaks are inevitable,” Cahill said, pointing to Notre Dame University, where there have been hundreds of positive cases since students returned to campus in early August.

Cahill, 31, said his greatest fear is that he would contract COVID-19, be asymptomatic and unknowingly spread the virus to his family, students, coworkers and others.

Catholic school teachers aren’t unionized and cannot strike, but Cahill said the group is prepared to create a contingency plan if the archdiocese doesn’t meet its demands, which are outlined in a petition circulated by Arise Chicago.

“I love my job. I love teaching,” Cahill said. “But at the end of the day, we care more about our students being alive than about them being present in the classroom with us.”

The archdiocese serves about 70,000 students in about 200 schools in Cook and Lake counties.

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