Most of the Chicago Public Schools teachers and staffers who are scheduled to return to classrooms next week for the first time in nine months have tacitly agreed to do so — but almost a third of them requested to work from home or take a leave of absence.
The district ended up rejecting most of those requests, according to CPS data released Tuesday on the 7,002 pre-kindergarten and special education cluster program employees who were told to return to work Jan. 4 following the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic closure.
Two-thirds of those employees — 4,684 of them — didn’t ask for leave or accommodations.
Another 2,010 employees applied to stay home or take leave. The district granted 861 of those requests and rejected 1,149 others, or about 16% of all returning workers. An additional 308 requests are pending, according to CPS.
The 7,002 pre-K and cluster employees make up the first wave of returning CPS workers, followed by K-8 teachers Jan. 25. Hybrid in-person learning for K-8 students is scheduled to resume Feb. 1.
CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton noted about 79% of the first wave of returning employees either didn’t ask for any accommodations or received them. All 527 employees who requested leaves of absence due to a personal underlying health condition were granted it.
“Health and safety are the district’s highest priorities, and accommodations for remote work have been granted to all teachers and staff who have documented medical conditions as defined by the CDC, and where possible, accommodations were also granted to staff who live with someone with a high-risk medical condition or who face child care challenges,” Bolton said.
District reconsidering requests from caregivers
But of the 790 employees who made requests because they reported living with someone who has a serious medical condition — and therefore would be more vulnerable to COVID-19 — only 148 requests were approved, or about 19% of them, while 642 were rejected.
The district said it’s revisiting that number, though, because the initial request process “did not distinguish between individuals living with medically vulnerable individuals and those who are caregivers.” Primary caregivers will be prioritized in a new process.
“While the district cannot guarantee every one of these caregiver requests will be granted a remote work accommodation, we expect that we will grant the vast majority of their requests,” CPS said in a written statement.
The school system also received 513 requests from employees who reported issues finding childcare accommodations; 59 were approved, and 454 were rejected.
The Chicago Teachers Union has pushed back against the district’s reopening plan, arguing it puts workers at risk while the pandemic rages on.
In a statement, the union noted many requests are still outstanding, while many other teachers concerned about returning didn’t request accommodations because they knew they were sure to be rejected.
“So the fact that about 70% of members asked to return on Jan. 4 did not request a leave is not an indication of confidence in CPS’ plan. It’s an indication that CPS is forcing them to choose between safety and livelihood, and they cannot afford to sacrifice their livelihoods,” CTU leaders said.
Staff waits, worries
D’Andrea Clark’s request to work from home because she has lung disease was originally approved. But days before Christmas, she got another message from CPS stating her request was void, leaving her unsure about what she will do next week.
“I’m hoping that CPS, as well as our mayor, makes the right decision,” said Clark, who works as a special education classroom assistant at John B. Drake Elementary near Bronzeville. “I don’t know what I can do.”
Since Monday, Clark has called the district and her union, SEIU Local 73, trying to get more information about why her request that was initially granted was later denied.
In the 60616 Zip code where the school is located, more than 2,400 people have tested positive for the virus and 55 deaths were related to COVID-19, according to statistics from the city. She doesn’t want to take a leave of absence because she provides for her three children and has to pay her mortgage.
She already spent most of November sick with COVID-19 that required a hospital visit. Although she has since tested negative, she continues to deal with headaches and lingering effects to the left side of her face.
Clark is worried about news of a new strain of the virus. And working with diverse learners makes it difficult to social distance, because she would have to change diapers for some students and hold the hands of others, she said.
“I know my babies need help,” Clark said, referring to the students she works with. “They need me to be there one on one, sometimes they just need a little hug from me. Believe me, I know my babies need it, but it’s too much of a risk for my babies, and it’s too much of a risk for me.”
Naomi Byrd, a special education classroom assistant at William K. New Sullivan Elementary School in the Bush neighborhood, is still waiting to hear if her request to continue working remotely was approved or denied. Byrd is the primary caretaker for her mother who is over 80 and has a heart condition, and she is concerned going back to school will put her mother at risk.
The school is located in the 60617 Zip code where more than 5,600 residents have tested positive for the virus and 109 deaths were related to COVID-19, according to statistics from the city.
Byrd said she was told about 16 diverse learning students will return to school, but some will be students she hasn’t worked with before. She is considering taking a leave of absence if her request is denied, but that will also likely mean she will have to recalculate her retirement plans.
“My biggest fear is if I get [COVID], I can give it to her,” Byrd said, referring to her elderly mother. “She has some years left, I don’t want to do anything to bring it back.”
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.