As the debate heats up nationwide over the reopening of schools, Chicago teachers, activists and families rallied outside City Hall Monday to oppose a planned return to classrooms when Chicago Public Schools classes resume next month.
The protests are part of similar demonstrations in several cities across the nation and come just days before CPS parents are being asked to tell the district whether their children will go back to in-person learning or continue trying to learn from home.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS officials have proposed a return to schools that would put most students in classrooms two days a week and school staff, including teachers, four days a week.
The most vocal leader in the push to keep school buildings closed is the Chicago Teachers Union, which has said it believes in-person instruction is not safe for teachers or students as COVID-19 continues to spread.
The union has gone as far as suggesting a potential repeat of last fall’s strike could be used as a last resort if staff are forced to return to classrooms. Mirroring the lead-up to last year’s walkout, the CTU is renewing its rivalry with Lightfoot by ramping up its public attacks on the mayor, with its harshest criticisms coming Monday.
“It is failed leadership to believe that we can bring hundreds of thousands of people back into school communities and not suffer loss and sickness,” said the union’s vice president, Stacy Davis Gates, an outspoken and frequent critic of Lightfoot.
“Instead of pretending as if COVID-19 is not as dangerous and deadly as it is, we should be figuring out how to educate children virtually,” she said. “We all concede it’s not ideal, so now we need to figure out how to make it work as best as we can.”
Davis Gates said “no” when asked whether there was anything Lightfoot or CPS could do in the next month to get teachers to agree to go back into schools Sept. 8, the start of the next school year.
At a press conference outside union headquarters on the Near West Side, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said Lightfoot “does not have the guts to close the schools,” adding another direct attack on the mayor.
“They’re putting it on us to close the schools,” Sharkey said. “That’s what we feel like is happening.”
Lightfoot and CPS have said a final decision whether to open schools won’t be made until late August, and will be based on health conditions at the time.
Asked to respond to the CTU’s renewed attacks Monday, the mayor’s office said in a statement that “we have made a firm commitment to base our policies and initiatives on the science and data of this disease, and to communicate decisions to our stakeholders in an open and transparent way.
“This is the same approach that CPS has taken all along in engaging all the relevant stakeholders in the school community. The data will drive this decision,” the statement read.
Andrea Parker, an English Language Arts teacher at Fulton Elementary in Back of the Yards, said at the news conference that she loves her students and wants to see them, but she isn’t willing to put herself or the kids at risk.
“Sending our students to school in a hybrid model is putting our children and all our staff members in harm’s way. It is very dangerous,” Parker said.
Parker added that she doesn’t believe a return to an unusual school setting will benefit students’ emotional and social health the way some might think.
“I have to tell my students they can’t hug each other,” she said. “They can’t be too close to each other. They can’t share pencils. ... It’s not going to be what you think it is.”
CPS has said precautions will be put in place at schools, such as temperature and health checks, social distancing and universal masking. The district is giving every student and staffer three reusable masks and has pledged to provide all schools with additional cleaning supplies — something CPS failed to do in the spring.
Parents at a separate Logan Square rally Monday said those protections aren’t enough.
Mónica Espinoza is an education organizer with Logan Square Neighborhood Association and a mother of four, two of which attend CPS schools and the youngest entering pre-kindergarten.
Espinoza, who is planning to keep her children home this fall, said she wishes the district would have spent more time developing its remote learning plan so parents could have more confidence that it will offer a better learning experience than in the spring.
“Parents want to prepare for the future, for an education. We don’t want to be planning for a funeral for our children,” Espinoza said. “And I know it sounds harsh, but it’s the reality.”
She added: “You want to do what is right by your child. You want them to get educated. You want them to achieve. But for me, I don’t want to take my chances. I want to keep my kids at home and do my best.”
The Logan Square group met up with the CTU car caravan outside City Hall, where a few hundred people rallied across the street to demand more equitable education funding, better health care and affordable housing for the communities of color that make up the majority of students at CPS.