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Make schools safe now: CTU president

Union president Jesse Sharkey said teachers and other employees need time to plan, in the event school returns to in-class learning next semester. Sharkey said the CPS board hasn’t yet addressed “really critical issues.”

Jesse Sharkey, Chicago Teachers Union president
Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey held a news conference Monday in the wake of an arbitrator’s ruling in the union’s favor.
Sun-Times file

The president of the Chicago Teachers Union on Monday said it’s time for Chicago Public Schools to make facilities safe — following an arbitrator’s ruling last week that said schools are anything but for clerks and other employees.

“It’s critical that people be safe,” said Jesse Sharkey, speaking during a Zoom meeting Monday. “You can’t learn if you’re dead.”

Arbitrator Jeanne Charles found that requiring school clerks and other employees to report to CPS buildings increases the risk of contracting COVID-19, and that increased risk of infection violates the school district’s contract to provide “safe and healthful” working conditions.

“The only way to eliminate the risk of COVID-19 infection and death is for School Clerks, School Clerk Assistants, and Technology Coordinators to work remotely,” Charles said in her decision.

She directed the Chicago Board of Education to allow these employees to do all work remotely when possible.

CTU raised the complaint against the school board Aug. 21, arguing that requiring school clerks and other employees to work full time inside schools violates the condition of providing “safe and healthful working conditions.”

On Monday, Sharkey said teachers and other employees need time to plan, in the event that school returns to in-class learning next semester. Sharkey said the CPS board hasn’t yet addressed “really critical issues.”

“They haven’t addressed ventilation, for example. One of the things we know about this virus is that it’s airborne. A lot of schools — in fact, the majority of them — don’t have good ventilation systems,” Sharkey said. “As winter is approaching, our ability to open windows is reduced.”

CPS issued a statement Monday said the district has already developed a “comprehensive health and safety plan.”

Calling the arbitrator’s ruling “deeply flawed,” CPS spokesman Michael Passman said it abandoned “actual public health standards” and instead relied on “her own judgments.”

The ruling “doesn’t find any actual deficiencies in the district’s plan or a single building where conditions are unsafe,” Passman added. “We will be moving to have the ruling reconsidered based on local and national public health standards and a complete assessment of the district’s efforts to protect staff.”