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Why Chicago can’t immediately vaccinate all its teachers

As CPS looks to restart in-person learning for 61,000 students Monday, Board of Education members questioned why it’s taking longer to give shots to educators than in other districts.

A woman receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Harry S. Truman College on the North Side, Thursday afternoon, Jan. 21, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Chicago teachers have argued they should be vaccinated against COVID-19 before Chicago Public Schools officials require them to return to their classrooms next week.

Educators in the city have seen some smaller suburban districts take that approach and watched wealthy private schools secure batches of shots to immediately administer to their staff.

Chicago’s Board of Education asked at its monthly meeting Wednesday why the city can’t do the same.

Board member Amy Rome wondered what was being done to prioritize teachers for inoculations, and member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said “it’s hard to see educators in other parts of the state getting vaccine, or being asked about a vaccine, several weeks ago.

“Is that a federal issue, is that a pharmaceutical company issue, is that a state issue?” Todd-Breland asked.

Dr. Marielle Fricchione of the city’s Health Department said Chicago is so large that it — along with N.Y.C., Philadelphia, Houston and L.A. County — receives vaccines directly from the federal government, while suburbs and other towns have gotten doses through the state.

“Unfortunately, that formula that they used did not take into account both the high percentage of health care workers that we have in our jurisdiction, as well as just the population density in and of itself and our disproportionate burden,” Fricchione told the board.

The federal government’s misallocation has meant the city didn’t receive enough doses for the 1A phase of vaccinations, which covered health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities, she said. By the time 1B came around — the phase that includes teachers and essential workers — not nearly enough Chicagoans in 1A had received their shots, causing a ripple effect for the rest of the rollout. And Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Tuesday she was not going to move teachers ahead of vulnerable residents or other essential employees who have been working in the community for months.

Suburbs that have made more progress vaccinating teachers have far fewer health care and other essential workers and much smaller districts. CPS is Chicago’s second-largest employer after the federal government with 35,000 workers.

“And so that’s the reason why other areas in the state who are getting their vaccine through a separate shipment are able to move through the phases more quickly than we are,” Fricchione said. “I wish that wasn’t the case. But that’s the cards that we’ve been dealt, partially because of decisions made by the last federal administration.”

Marielle Fricchione, medical director of the Chicago Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 bureau
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A free-for-all

Educators, who became eligible for vaccination this week, have been frustrated and confused by the rollout. Some CPS teachers have gotten shots through their private provider, but others who made appointments with the city had theirs canceled over the weekend after they used a code that was circulated by principals and in Facebook groups but was actually designated for home health care workers. CPS expects to set up four vaccination sites for teachers, but not until mid-February.

In his comments to the board a couple of hours earlier, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said he was still disappointed with CPS’ stance that reopening couldn’t be delayed until more teachers have an opportunity for a vaccination. He lamented what he described as a lack of a comprehensive strategy by the city to get around those problems and little dialogue about why CTU’s demands on shots for teachers can’t be met.

“We understand there’s a vaccine shortage,” the union leader said. “We acknowledge that there’s other people besides teachers who should have more priority in this regard. But it appears that Walgreens, CVS and Jewel have private supplies that they’ve promised and are starting to dole out to small groups of schools on the North Side. You tell us we have to come back without a vaccine even though we see people teaching remotely in Evanston and Skokie getting vaccinated.

“There’s a vaccine free-for-all. No one is talking to us about what is really possible about the vaccine, the real constraints. If there really is a will, could there be a way? We can’t see why you can’t phase in a reopening that allows our members to be vaccinated.”

Sharkey said he believes safely returning to in-person school is a shared goal between the union and the mayor, but he hopes “we can both acknowledge that this thing got off to the wrong foot.”

“I would argue that the Board of Education never intended to reach an agreement on whether and when to do reopening,” Sharkey said, pointing out that the mayor’s office and top CPS leadership have been to very few or no bargaining sessions since the fall.

“I think that was a mistake. You cannot accomplish safe reopening with force when you failed to do so with persuasion.”

Sharkey said he wished he could have predicted the eventual stalemate, “and if I could go back in time, I would’ve been more insistent on reaching small agreements to build a track record prior to getting here.”

‘Strike would be devastating’

Nonetheless, both sides say negotiations — which continued Wednesday — have progressed over the past week as they look to avoid a second teachers strike in 15 months. Lightfoot said she still aims to bring back about 62,000 K-8 students to their classrooms Monday, setting up a pivotal next few days in bargaining. The district said remote learning would continue Thursday, even for some preschool and special education students that had returned to schools already.

Board President Miguel del Valle, making his first public comments since the CTU moved this week to defy CPS’ reopening plan, said another walkout, this one during a pandemic, would hit families hard. He called the apparent impasse “an inflection point.”

“The board sincerely wants to come to an agreement with CTU on in-person instruction,” del Valle said. “A strike would be devastating for our students, our parents, our community who have already endured so much over the last 10 months.

“We believe our teachers truly want to continue to deliver high-quality instruction to our students, and they know how debilitating a strike would be for students whose progress and well-being has already been impacted by COVID. ... It’s in everyone’s best interest to come to an agreement that provides a path forward.”

Del Valle thanked teachers for their “heroic efforts to implement and improve remote learning since we started in the spring.” But he said more support needs to be given to students who haven’t been well-served remotely, including a path toward more opportunities for in-person learning.

“An agreement would be a signal of that authentic partnership that we need as we move forward to heal together,” he said.

miguel del valle cps
CPS Board of Education President Miguel del Valle
Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Ald.: Delay reopening until Feb. 8

For the first time in several months, five of the seven board members returned to CPS’ downtown headquarters for the meeting, which was also livestreamed and not open to in-person public attendance.

In the public comment portion of the meeting, parents on both sides of the issue asked the board to consider their circumstances.

A group of 17 aldermen, meanwhile, asked CPS to delay the start of in-person learning until Feb. 8, a week later than currently planned, to allow more time for negotiations with CTU. They also asked for the district to “accelerate and expand a staff vaccination program to ensure that schools can reopen for in-person learning safely.”

Troy LaRaviere, president of an association that represents principals, revealed his own plan Wednesday for reopening the district. After surveying administrators, he called for the school district to reopen between 50 and 100 schools to in-person learning in a pilot program that would prioritize staff at those schools for COVID-19 vaccinations.

If successful, the number of schools in the program should be expanded every three or four weeks, he said. LaRaviere added that few principals he surveyed felt they had received the resources or guidance they needed to properly reopen.

LaRaviere said prioritizing staff at the selected schools for vaccination would incentivize teachers to want to take part in the pilot program, would help stabilize staffing issues, and allow the school district to address any problems at a smaller and more manageable scale.

Contributing: Mitch Dudek