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CTU continues plea to CPS for safe school reopenings: ‘This is about saving our lives’

The Chicago Teachers Union and supporters held a march on the South Side Monday as it continued the union’s monthslong plea for a safe reopening plan.

Chicago Teachers Union members and their supporters march and protest in Pilsen after a press conference outside Joseph Jungman Elementary School to call for “safety, equity and trust in any school reopening plan” on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Monday morning, Jan. 18, 2021.
Chicago Teachers Union members and their supporters march and protest Monday in Pilsen after a news conference outside Joseph Jungman Elementary School to call for “safety, equity and trust in any school reopening plan.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Linda Perales got emotional Monday as she looked out at a crowd of about 150 Chicago Public Schools teachers and community members who gathered in Pilsen in solidarity with thousands of educators and staff who returned to schools earlier this month.

“Over 75% of parents have decided to stay home, so we know that what we’re doing, what we’re fighting for, is right,” said Perales, who choked back tears. “And [Mayor] Lori Lightfoot and [CPS CEO] Janice Jackson need to listen to us.”

Perales was one of the thousands of Chicago Public Schools teachers expected to return to the classroom with students earlier this month. But Perales, who teaches kindergarten through second grade as part of Corkery Elementary School’s cluster program, decided to stay home and continue to teach class online out of concern that CPS’ reopening plan wasn’t safe.

Subsequently, she and more than 140 other educators were restricted from teaching Jan. 11 until they returned to school buildings. By the end of the week, the number of staff considered AWOL was down to 87, CPS said.

“I want to be teaching. I’m ready to teach but remotely until it’s safe,” said Perales as she clutched a handmade “Let me teach” sign. “[This fight is] not just for us, it’s for our students that could take COVID home to their families that have already been hit hard. It’s to keep everyone safe.”

Perales spoke during a march held by the Chicago Teachers Union and its supporters on the South Side, a part of the union’s monthslong plea for a safe reopening plan.

More than 3,700 teachers and school employees and some 6,000 preschoolers and special education students with complex disabilities were expected to return to school buildings last week for the first time since March, though it’s unclear how many students actually showed up.

A much bigger wave of elementary school teachers and staff are set to go back to schools Jan. 25, with students returning Feb. 1.

“This is about saving our lives,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said. “This isn’t about power, this ain’t about politics. This ain’t about petty grievances. This is about two weeks in the door we have over 50 COVID exposures, incidents, infections happening in school buildings. Anyone else would say time out, let’s figure this out. But our mayor and her team at CPS is putting their foot on the gas.”

A cluster of COVID-19 cases at McCutcheon Elementary in Uptown already has forced at least eight people, including the principal and assistant principal, into quarantine last week. CTU alleged at least 50 schools have had coronavirus exposure or cases since they reopened.

James Gherardi, a spokesman for CPS, didn’t confirm CTU’s claims that 50 schools had COVID-19 exposure over the last two weeks. He said the district’s online COVID-19 tracker doesn’t provide a breakdown of weekly cases by schools, but he did provide the Sun-Times with reported positive cases at schools between Jan. 10 and Jan 14.

According to that CPS data, 35 schools reported at least one positive case of COVID-19 within those four days. The data also show that 56 people at 16 different schools had close contact with someone with COVID-19 and were told to quarantine for 14 days.

CPS officials have maintained its reopening plan is safe. They have spent millions of dollars on air purifiers and other ventilation improvements and cleaning supplies and hired more janitors and increased cleaning protocols. They point to numerous studies that have shown that schools that have reopened in other areas have not turned into superspreader sites.

Some teachers said CPS should hold off on reopening schools until more people in school buildings are vaccinated. Illinois is expected to enter the next phase of its coronavirus vaccine distribution plan Jan. 25, which will make educators and school staff eligible for shots.

“The irony is that that is the same day that the Chicago Public Schools will be forcing our workers, our members, who are mothers, who are fathers, who are aunts, who are uncles, who are sisters, who are brothers, to go back into classrooms,” Davis-Gates said. “We have light at the end of the tunnel. But we have intractability at the negotiating table. Those two things are in sharp conflict.”

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) echoed the concerns of CTU and said he will use his power as the chairman of City Council’s Committee on Health and Human Relations to “call a hearing on the City’s preparations to vaccinate school employees.”

“CPS has seen dozens of COVID cases surface among school communities and staff since the January 4 reopening,” Sawyer said in a statement. “I strongly believe and would like to add my voice that for the reopening program to proceed the city and CPS must move to hurriedly prioritize the vaccination of all school workers immediately.”

Contributing: Manny Ramos