CPS and CTU, time to act like adults and stop fighting over school reopening

The finger-pointing on both sides is a dangerous game of one-upmanship that distracts from what matters most: Ensuring all our children get the education they deserve.

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A preschool student washes his hands after breakfast at Dawes Elementary School on the Southwest Side on Monday, the first day of a phased-in school reopening for Chicago Public Schools.

A preschool student washes his hands after breakfast at Dawes Elementary School on the Southwest Side on Jan. 11, the first day of a phased-in school reopening for Chicago Public Schools.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia | Sun-Times

On Monday, the Illinois Senate repealed a decades-old bill that limited the issues that the Chicago Teachers Union can bargain over, thus expanding the union’s bargaining rights at an important time. If Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the repeal this week, it could further escalate the battle between Chicago Public Schools and the CTU.

For months, Chicago’s news has been filled with the very public battle around reopening our schools. Instead of coming together to fight the spread of COVID-19 and develop a safe, equitable way to ensure all children are healthy and learning together, our leaders have fought each other. We’re watching that fight become increasingly, dangerously polarized.

If the leaders of our school district and teachers’ union continue on this path, no one wins. Students, families, and educators will almost certainly lose.

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Let’s look first at the debate around public health. The CTU’s demand for a 3% testing positivity rate as the reopening threshold is virtually unattainable right now, and not necessarily reflective of the most recent science about reopening schools. However, with only 37% of families opting to send their students back to schools, parents obviously have very real safety concerns, especially those parents from communities of color that have been hit hardest by COVID-19. The district has yet to adequately address those concerns.

Instead of engaging in an endless back-and-forth on demands for reopening, what efforts are being made by leaders on both sides to speak directly with communities about what they need to feel safe?

Similarly, with many students from Black and Latino households choosing to learn from home, educators are arguing that simultaneous instruction — requiring teachers to teach remotely and in-person at the same time — could further hurt learning for our most vulnerable students. Yet the district seems unwilling to open a conversation on that front.

There must be a way to ensure that students who continue to learn remotely have teachers who are focused and dedicated to the unique needs of online learning, especially if they are the very students who are most likely to suffer learning loss during this time.

It would make sense to talk to families about their health and safety concerns — and it would also make sense for our school leaders to talk to educators about innovative ways to utilize personnel, class size, and technology to give every student the best possible education.

A hard-line stance

Perhaps the most disappointing behaviors occurred last week, when a subset of educators were called to return to school buildings. The union continued to encourage educators not to return because of public health concerns — at the same time that a prominent CTU leader was vacationing in Puerto Rico. Such behavior is certainly unacceptable.

Yet when the district saw that thousands of teachers continued to teach remotely instead of reporting to work in person, as expected, what did CPS do? Instead of reaching out to them and holding a conversation to resolve the situation, the district took a hard-line stance and announced they wouldn’t be paid if they didn’t show up for work.

CPS and CTU have legitimate grievances against each other, but both sides are behaving badly. The narrow focus on finger-pointing, escalating rhetoric and obstruction tactics is a dangerous game of one-upmanship. Worst of all, it distracts everyone involved from keeping a laser focus on what matters: Ensuring all our children get the education they deserve.

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Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, may have said it best: “You need to actually have people talking to each other, sharing the data and solving problems,” she said in a recent New York Times interview. “I don’t care if you hate each other. You have to talk to each other if you are being real about caring about children.”

It is time for both sides to act like adults and come to the table to compromise. 

A safe school reopening and, down the line, helping children recover any lost learning won’t be easy. But I am certain we will never get there if our leaders continue fighting each other rather than fighting for our children.

Our city’s leaders must adjust the course they’re on and stop putting politics above what’s best for students and families.

Stacy Moore is a former Chicago teacher and the current Executive Director of Educators for Excellence-Chicago, a teacher-led advocacy organization.

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