It has been a confusing week for the average Chicagoan living through the latest round of work stoppages, the Chicago Public Schools lockout of teachers from remote classrooms, and debates around school safety between Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union. With dueling press conferences and accusations, it can be disorienting. Additionally, most of us have a dire case of COVID fatigue; we are exhausted by canceled trips, upended family gatherings, disruption to home and work schedules, public restrictions, etc.
As a 20-year veteran of CPS, these past three years have been the most difficult of my career. Teachers, our students and their families are experiencing the first worldwide pandemic of this magnitude in 100 years. The waves of variants and the shifting guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health departments have been disorienting. The fact that the majority of our Black and Latinx students have seen relatives and neighbors die from COVID at two and three times the rates, respectively, of white families is nothing short of a national tragedy. The loss of life, income and stability is real. Schools are no exception.
In order to create the infrastructure and mitigation necessary to curb the spread of COVID in CPS, we need clear and appropriate measures. That is why CTU wants better quality masks for students and staff, adequate COVID testing and contact tracing of all students.
Those commitments can ensure that any return to in-person schooling in the midst of the worst surge yet will put student, staff and family safety at the center. Instead, CPS provided students with 150,000 take-home tests that resulted in only 10,000 accurate PCR results. That’s an example of what many teachers already knew — that testing, contact tracing and appropriate masking was largely not happening in schools prior to omicron and certainly not after it arrived.
When we entered our buildings after break and saw exponentially more students in quarantine, without adequate testing, and more and more colleagues contracting the virus, it was necessary to change course. Despite the possibility of going remote, very few schools were prepared. While CPS has purchased new laptops with federal funds, they have not been distributed to students across the system, in the event we need to move to virtual classes.
CTU has been advocating for better testing, masking, vaccine access, contact tracing and school closing metrics since the summer, and yet many of the district’s responses have not sufficiently addressed those proposals. At my school, we saw a huge increase in students being quarantined after break, and yet the majority who turned in take-home tests told us they were not processed because of late delivery. Students shared these stories through cloth masks, while some were coughing and sniffling. Many teachers from across the district shared similar stories earlier this week.
Additionally, though much of the focus locally is on the CTU demands, many other districts throughout the state are making similar decisions. In Chicago’s own charter school network, and in Niles, Evanston, Glenbrook North and South, Elgin, Peoria and beyond, schools are closing because this variant is relentless, can spread in schools and threatens to do lasting damage to our hospital systems.
When the Sun-Times editorial board suggests a COVID task force of students, parents, teachers and district representatives to help inform our process moving forward, many of us would welcome that. It is why we Chicago teachers have advocated for an elected school board to apply checks and balances on mayoral control.
Most teachers want to return to in-person schooling as soon as possible. The mitigation efforts we are advocating for will provide schools with the foundation to create a sense of normalcy for the first time in a long while.
Jackson Potter is a teacher at Back of the Yards College Prep and a trustee of the CTU’s Executive Board.
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