The fight over when and how to reopen Chicago Public Schools for the first time during the still-raging pandemic came to a head Monday with many teachers refusing to report to their schools on a day that officials had hoped would be the start of a return to normalcy for education in the city.
Citing health and safety concerns and a lack of trust in the school district’s coronavirus mitigation protocols, some school staffers who work with preschoolers and students with moderate to complex disabilities declined to return to schools despite being required to do so. Officials wouldn’t say Monday how many of the 5,800 expected back at schools didn’t show up. About 6,500 of their students are set to return next week, while over 10,000 will be staying remote. Kindergarten through eighth grade staff are due back later this month ahead of a Feb. 1 reopening for those schools.
Staff members who did head to schools reported a range of conditions, from no problems at all to dirty and cramped rooms with little ventilation. At Brentano Elementary in Logan Square, teachers and clinicians set up makeshift workspaces in the school courtyard, working in freezing temperatures as a form of protest against being told to go back into classrooms they believe are unsafe.
Employees who didn’t report to their school or worked outside received emails from CPS human resources chief Matt Lyons that said their absence was not authorized and they “must begin reporting to work in-person tomorrow.” CPS officials have said those who don’t report to their schools will face discipline. Spokeswoman Emily Bolton said Monday that health officials have signed off on the district’s plan, and that the Chicago Teachers Union’s “last-minute tactics are deeply disrespectful to the 77,000 mostly Black and Latinx families who selected in-person learning.”
The union, which has campaigned for several months against CPS’ plans for reopening, has said it will back its members but has not yet called for any collective action, such as a work stoppage. The union has a House of Delegates meeting scheduled for Wednesday at which several options could be considered.
Each side ramped up its efforts to convince the public of its stance Monday in moves reminiscent of the teachers strike two falls ago.
The CTU hosted news conferences in the morning and afternoon — with another scheduled for early Tuesday — in which teachers explained their fears for their health and their decisions to stay out of the classroom. The union was embarrassed last week, however, when Sarah Chambers, a member of the CTU executive board, posted photos from a vacation in Puerto Rico on social media even as she was arguing for schools not to reopen.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson countered the union’s media blitz with an unpublicized visit to Drake Elementary on the Near South Side. City representatives did not immediately answer questions about why the visit was not made public until pictures were shared on social media after the fact. Lightfoot and Jackson were seen standing in close proximity to school staffers — although officials wore masks, they didn’t always follow social distancing protocols.
Today we’re another step closer to a safe return to in-person instruction.— Janice K. Jackson (@janicejackson) January 4, 2021
Thanks Principal Moy, Principal Golliday, @Haines_CPS and @DrakeElementary educators for welcoming @chicagosmayor and me today as we prepare to begin welcoming students back to school buildings on 1/11! pic.twitter.com/ZKqGi6MgVJ
“Today we are another step closer to a safe return to in-person instruction,” Jackson tweeted.
The visit came after the mayor and CPS CEO received a letter Sunday from 35 aldermen — two more signed on Monday — who said they were “deeply concerned” about the city’s return to classrooms in the midst of the pandemic. Jackson responded with a letter of her own saying CPS has already addressed those concerns.
‘Wanted to give it a try’
On the South Side Monday, a group of about 20 clinicians who serve students with hearing and visual impairments were told to report to a shuttered school that was turned into a CPS office, said a worker who was granted anonymity to discuss work conditions because they feared retribution.
Inside the school, the clinicians were set up in an old gymnasium that had dirty surfaces, no ventilation system and only one working window out of more than a dozen, the worker said. After the employees complained, they were sent home for the day while a cleaning crew went to the gym.
“None of us really thought it was going to be better, but we just wanted to give it a try,” the clinician said, adding that they haven’t seriously considered not going back in-person because they fear the district could easily cut their position as punishment.
The clinician is also worried about the logistics of CPS’ hybrid learning plan. Those therapists are still required to report to the gymnasium even though most of the students they serve have decided to stay remote. The result is up to 20 people teaching virtually in the same room with their voices echoing, making hearing difficult for their students on a computer. And for the children who are in-person, clinicians could visit several schools and multiple student pods within that school on any given day.
“A lot of us are concerned about being a vector, traveling between pods and exposing people,” the clinician said. “It’s just rough that your employer does not care about your health and safety.”
After initially being told to return to the same location Tuesday, the district reversed course. Bolton said late Monday that the clinicians were sent to the school in “error” and have been told to report to a new location.
A school on the West Side, however, seemed spotless Monday, said another staffer who works with special education students, with abundant air purifiers, plexiglass barriers and signs telling kids to stay six feet apart.
“The schools seem as clean as ever,” the worker said. “I felt safe, I felt fine. But kids weren’t there yet. Once you walk into a classroom with 12 kids, how do you keep them separate?”
The employee wondered if CPS should wait to return until teachers are vaccinated since they’re expected to be included in the next wave of essential workers. “What’s another six weeks when you’ve been out six months?”
Linda Perales, a special education cluster teacher at Corkery Elementary, said she decided to continue teaching remotely without approval Monday because a return to the classroom doesn’t necessarily mean her students will receive the proper therapy and education.
“We know that K-2 cluster students can’t wear a face mask all day, they cannot social distance and that increases the transmission of COVID-19,” Perales said at the morning CTU news conference.
“They will have to wear a face mask all day. Teachers will have to wear a face mask all day, and that is so important to note because it’s going to make it impossible to teach letter sounds and other things like that.”
Perales and other teachers said they are concerned that returning to in-person learning will affect low-income students by increasing the risk of transmission and bringing the coronavirus back to their communities, which have already been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Nancy Salgado, a Brentano mom, said outside the school Monday that she took her asymptomatic kids to get tested in November after she caught COVID-19. They were positive.
“What does that say? If I would not have tested them and our children were in that classroom, they would’ve spread the COVID to other teachers and to other students,” Salgado said. “They would’ve gone back and hurt someone, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”
Ald.: Families not ready to go back
Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) said at the union’s afternoon press conference that he’s heard from residents in his ward who feel the city is ignoring their fears.
“This plan still feels half baked, it feels incomplete,” La Spata said. “In three different meetings I’ve asked directly to CPS what are the reasons that parents have said they are not feeling safe to come back in. Three different times I’ve been told, ‘We don’t know. We’re working to get those answers.’
“CPS, until you can answer why you don’t have the trust of these families, we’re not ready to come back to the classroom.”
On Sunday, Jackson argued in a response to the aldermen’s letter that returning to in-person learning will help Black and Latino students who “have fallen behind” in remote learning. Jackson and Lightfoot have made those equity concerns a focal point of their strong push to return to schools.
But with two-thirds of Black and Latino students choosing to continue learning from home, Lori Torres, a teacher in Logan Square, said CPS has not taken equity into consideration and is expecting teachers to teach students in-person and remotely without having extra support.
“Pushing teachers and students into buildings will weaken our remote learning plans, not strengthen them,” Torres said. “Teachers are expected to be two people, managing kids in front of them and managing kids on the screen. Aside from being safe, the decisions the district have made tell us that we still can’t trust that what they put into place have us in mind.”