Not a single Chicagoan, we suspect, will be surprised if teachers vote this weekend to essentially go on strike and refuse to return to classrooms on Monday because of fears of COVID-19.
That’s how toxic the stalemate over the reopening of schools has become between the Chicago Teachers Unions and school district officials.
The outcome of this weekend’s vote may well be inevitable, but we’re still urging teachers to vote “no.” To vote in favor of the effective strike could lead to a needless, acrimonious disaster for public education in Chicago in a school year that’s already been turned upside down by the pandemic.
Chicago doesn’t need another strike by teachers. Not for the second time in little more than a year and on the same day that thousands of elementary school teachers are scheduled to return to their schools, joining colleagues who already returned on Jan. 11.
Wasn’t it just days ago that CTU President Jesse Sharkey said the union and the district were having “better conversations” about reopening? And now the call to teach remotely rather than report back to schools?
We just don’t buy it.
A “yes” vote takes us backward
A “yes” vote would be a vote to disrupt the education of some 6,000 preschoolers and special needs students who have been back in school since Jan. 11.
A “yes” vote would say “forget it” to thousands of families that have opted for in-person learning, fully aware of the pandemic and the need to be careful, because remote instruction simply hasn’t worked for their children.
A ‘yes” vote would say “no” to the 75% of teachers and school personnel who already have returned to their students and schools because they believe it’s the right thing to do as professionals.
As one teacher who wrote to us recently put it, “Cities around the country and the world are reopening, Dr. [Anthony] Fauci is advocating reopening, the best medical journals say it can be done, and so what leg do we stand on with the public?”
It’s a point this editorial board has made time and again: Research and the experience of school systems across the country — including the Catholic schools here in Chicago — have shown that when proper protocols are followed, schools can operate safely even during a pandemic.
Remote learning is so second-best
To do any less for our city’s children, to pull back now on reopening and return to second-class virtual learning, would be a terrible disservice. Chicago’s schools can reopen safely, and already have begun to do so, by moving forward — not backward — in incremental steps, making whatever adjustments are necessary along the way.
Expert after expert has made a persuasive case for reopening the schools. Among them are the 17 doctors who signed a recent Sun-Times op-ed advocating a return to in-person learning. Their argument, based on the evidence, is that not only is it possible to reopen schools safely, but the alternative — continued remote learning — is a bust. The educational and social drawbacks are severe.
Help is on the way
And it’s all the more important to forge ahead with doing what’s best for our kids now at a time when we’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel in this pandemic. More vaccinations and federal help are coming.
Starting Monday, teachers will be among the essential workers eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations in Chicago. Those shots cannot come quickly enough, and they surely will ease much of the apprehension. But as the vaccine is rolled out to them in the coming weeks, teachers need to rise to the occasion and return to in-person teaching right now.
President Joe Biden has made the reopening of every public school in the country a top priority of his new administration. The problem of closed schools, he has said, is “a national emergency.” He understands that a quality public school education is the bedrock of a free society, and teaching is more than a profession — it is an essential calling.
On Thursday, Biden signed a number of executive orders that will assist schools in reopening. School districts will be eligible for federal reimbursements for the costs of masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment. And they will be given quicker access to more COVID-19 tests once production is ramped up under the Defense Production Act.
Biden is also urging the Education Department and the Department of Health and Human Services to more aggressively track COVID-19 cases in school districts across the country and use the data to recommend best practices for safe reopening.
Chicago’s doing the job
But let’s understand something. Chicago Public Schools, working with the city’s public health department, has already been working on reopening schools for months, putting in place the very same safety measures the Biden administration is urging upon other school districts.
We urge Chicago’s teachers to return to the classroom — safely and celebrated — on Monday. Chicago’s kids need them now.
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