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33 aldermen ‘deeply concerned’ with CPS’ reopening plans as some teachers refuse to return

The Chicago Teachers Union said Sunday that many of its members who are expected back Monday are telling their principals they won’t return and will continue to work remotely.

Chicago City Hall
A majority of the Chicago City Council has signed on to a letter expressing concern over the reopening plan being implemented by Chicago Public Schools.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The Chicago Teachers Union said Sunday that many of its members who are expected back to school Monday will defy Chicago Public Schools plans and only teach remotely, as a majority of Chicago aldermen said in a letter to the mayor they are “deeply concerned” with the city’s reopening plans.

The moves mark an escalation of the months-long campaign by the CTU for a safe reopening and further complicates plans of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson to start bringing back thousands of teachers and students.

Thirty-three aldermen wrote a letter to Lightfoot and Jackson to say they are “deeply concerned” with CPS’ scheduled reopening this month, expressing doubt in the racial equity and health and safety aspects of the city’s plan. They laid out nine steps the city should take as it looks to reopen classrooms and urged the mayor and school district to collaborate with the teachers union over its concerns.

Jackson responded Sunday evening with a lengthy letter of her own that said CPS officials have already addressed most of the aldermen’s concerns and that the “data are clear that schools like ours can reopen safely.” Jackson pointed to the the city’s 16 learning hubs and the thousands of students attending in-person classes at private and parochial schools as examples of how Chicago-area classrooms have safely reopened amid the pandemic. She said CPS has “met and exceeded” those schools’ mitigation protocols.

CPS, however, has challenges that many of those schools do not, such as greater density and higher populations of special education students and children from low-income backgrounds. The district is also facing a workforce that at least partially is refusing to return to buildings it believes are unsafe.

At least 5,800 employees are scheduled to return to their schools Monday for the first time since the pandemic began, with another 861 granted medical leaves and about 300 requests still pending, according to CPS. The educators work in preschool and special education cluster programs. Their students are set to return Jan. 11. Thousands more teachers and staff are expected back Jan. 25 ahead of a Feb. 1 schools reopening for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

A CTU spokeswoman said the union doesn’t know how many members are refusing to return or whether that could derail the school system’s plans. Each worker who has told their principal they won’t return has been met with threats of discipline by CPS, but the union will back any members who decide to stay home and expects “a ton” of grievances to be filed, CTU leaders said.

The union is arguing members have contractual and legal rights to refuse to work in a workplace they believe is unsafe. A decision on a collective labor action, such as a work stoppage, has not yet been made.

Jackson told the Sun-Times last month that teachers who “don’t show up” to work could be fired.

Aldermen Ed Burke (14th), Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Nick Sposato (38th) were among a handful of moderate and conservative aldermen who signed the letter, joining the progressives who typically align with CTU causes.

The aldermen acknowledged the stressors of remote learning on both families and educators but said they are “deeply concerned that Chicago Public Schools’ current plan . . . does not meet the district’s objective of increasing equity for students and fails to adequately address a number of safety concerns identified by parents, students and staff in light of the ongoing pandemic.”

Lightfoot has made the case that reopening schools would be an equitable solution for students of color who have had less access to remote learning. Jackson repeated that argument Sunday, writing in her response that Black and Latino students need an opportunity for in-person learning because many “have fallen far behind” in remote learning.

The aldermen’s concerns center on the fact that, despite those intentions, white and middle-class families have opted to return to their schools at double the rate of Black, Latino and low-income families who have been less likely to trust the district’s safety measures in a pandemic that has disproportionately hurt their communities. So with educators now expected to split their effort between the classroom and the screen, Black and Latino students — the vast majority of whom have decided to stay remote — could receive even less attention than before.

The aldermen’s letter urged CPS to establish clear public health criteria for reopening (a demand independent health experts have said is hard to achieve); establish a detailed testing and contact tracing plan; improve internet access and reduce screen time for remote learners; give social workers, speech therapists and other clinicians advance notice of which students will be returning in person; give timely and transparent decisions to those requesting medical leave; provide clearer guidelines on paid leave, and give regular public updates on the hiring of 2,000 new employees who’ll assume pandemic-related responsibilities.

Jackson said CPS has already laid out testing and contact tracing plans and is using the best available public health guidance and data. No concessions are expected on remote learning screen time.

“A successful reopening plan must inspire public trust through transparency, communication and collaboration,” the aldermen wrote. “To that end, CPS needs true buy-in from and collaboration with parents, communities and organized labor. We believe that CPS can achieve this, and stand ready to assist however we can.”

Read the letter from Chicago aldermen to Mayor Lightfoot and CPS.

Read CPS' response to the alderman.