Chicago Public Schools is looking to hire 2,000 new employees to take on pandemic-related duties and fill in gaps in staffing once schools return in-person in January, a plan that’s drawing a rebuke from the teachers union and that signifies one of the major challenges of reopening the third-largest district in the nation during a public health emergency.
One of the primary responsibilities for half of the new positions will be student supervision, according to a job posting. That includes supervising “students who are learning in person if [the] classroom teacher is teaching remotely,” the posting says, raising questions about what in-person instruction will look like for students who return to classrooms and signaling that the district intends to forge ahead with reopening despite a potentially massive number of staff requests for medical leave.
“Staffing is a concern, I don’t want to pretend like it’s not,” CPS human resources chief Matt Lyons said in an interview. “But I’m confident about where we are right now and that we’ll be able to provide a good learning experience for those who come in person.”
The district is requiring all preschool and special education cluster program staffers to return Jan. 4, and all elementary school employees to go back Jan. 25, each group a week before their students. CPS has not said how many employees have applied for medical leave or accommodations ahead of the district’s planned return. Those decisions were due to the district by last Monday, and some principals have said as many as a quarter to half of their staff have asked to stay home because of health and safety concerns as COVID-19 infections reaches peak levels in Chicago.
Asked if the spike in hiring is in response to excessive requests for leave, Lyons said “it’s really in anticipation of teachers and other staff being out, it’s not a response to what we’re seeing.”
Staffing has “been one of the major challenges from other school districts as they’ve come back, and so we’ve learned from those,” he said, describing the hiring as a strategic plan rather than a frantic scramble.
Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said the part-time job posting was the first the union heard teachers might teach remotely to students in a classroom, a proposition she called “slightly less terrible than forcing teachers to engage in synchronous learning from unsafe buildings.” She said in a statement, however, that “hiring people into a position that barely pays minimum wage, with zero health care benefits in the middle of a pandemic, seems particularly cynical.”
“CPS can try to exploit low-wage temporary workers to fill in for staff who are not willing to sacrifice their lives for their livelihoods, when they must instead come to the table and bargain collaboratively to land what we need to return to our school buildings and our students safely — enforceable safety standards and real equity for Black and Brown school communities starved of equity for years before this pandemic,” Davis Gates said.
Some part-time, non-union jobs
Half of the new jobs will be so-called “cadre substitute” teachers — and become members of the Chicago Teachers Union — who are licensed educators and will work in schools to beef up the ranks with potentially thousands of the district’s 22,000 teachers taking medical leave or needing other accommodations. Those positions are temporary but receive benefits.
The other 1,000 new positions will be part-time, non-union workers who will make $15 per hour, won’t be given health care and will have a variety of responsibilities at schools. The duties, along with student supervision, could include monitoring social distancing and masking, shuttling supplies and equipment around the school and conducting health screenings at the entrance. About 3,200 of the district’s existing 38,500 employees are not in a union.
Although overseeing classrooms while a teacher worked remotely was the first job duty listed in the online posting, it would only happen when “absolutely necessary, as a last resort,” Lyons said.
Lyons said the part-time miscellaneous positions already exist at some schools, and that CPS is “not hiring non-union employees to do union jobs. We know better, that’s not what we’re attempting to do.”
In the past, CPS has asked special education classroom assistants to supervise students when a teacher called in sick at the last minute or was otherwise unavailable. The district’s agreement with SEIU Local 73 last fall limited supervision by SECAs so they could instead focus on their primary responsibilities.
About two to four new positions are slated to go to every school that’s set to reopen in the new year. It’s unclear how quickly the school system can hire that many workers — CPS has had difficulty finding substitute teachers and hired only a fraction of the custodians it announced would be brought in months ago.
Unlike usual city employee jobs, none of the new positions require Chicago residency.
‘An operational necessity’
CPS’ hybrid learning plan includes 15-student pods to minimize contact with large groups and to make contact tracing easier. But to fill their responsibilities, the new workers will certainly have to come in contact with multiple student pods a day — as will teachers who move from classroom to classroom to teach different groups.
Asked if the additional adults coming in contact with several groups posed a new health and safety risk, Lyons said “this is one of those minimal risks that, it doesn’t present any additional danger in any way. It’s more an operational necessity.”
“All of the efforts we’re taking are layered mitigation risks,” Lyons said. “There’s a chance that if anyone who goes from classroom to classroom is COVID-positive, it’s possible they have close contact across pods and it would force certain different pods to shut down temporarily. But the likelihood versus the value to the school operations of that being the specific person is fairly low.”