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CTU slams ‘callous’ treatment of teachers worried about infecting their households

Many teachers find themselves asking to work remotely or take leave as in-person work resumes. Virtually all leave options are unpaid “so CPS is really forcing them to choose between their safety and their livelihood,” a teachers union official said Wednesday.

A school teacher works on a laptop outside during a protest against returning to in person teaching at Brentano Elementary School at 2723 N Fairfield Ave in Logan Square, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021.
A school teacher works on a laptop outside during a protest against returning to in person teaching at Brentano Elementary School at 2723 N Fairfield Ave in Logan Square, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021.
Anthony Vazquez, Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Chicago Teachers Union Wednesday slammed Chicago Public Schools officials over their treatment of teachers who were forced to weigh a return to working in-person this week for the first time during the pandemic.

“We are here this morning to underscore for the public how absolutely callously CPS has treated educators who have requested accommodations or leave,” CTU Deputy General Counsel Thad Goodchild said during an early-morning news conference.

“Virtually all leave options are unpaid ... so CPS is really forcing them to choose between their safety and their livelihood,” he said.

Roughly one in three educators directed to report to schools Monday requested a leave of absence or for special accommodations to work remotely, Goodchild said.

They 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. No decision has been made on when high school students in general education settings will return to in-person learning.

According to Goodchild, records show CPS has denied about 60% of requests for remote working and leave. And despite the school district’s claim it’s granted all remote work requests for employees with medical conditions that place them in a high-risk category, “we have heard from educator after educator this week for whom that hasn’t been true.”

But district officials denied Goodchild’s claims and said requests were granted for those who submitted the correct paperwork.

“Accommodations for remote work have been granted to all teachers and staff who have documented medical conditions as defined by the CDC,” read a statement on the district’s Twitter account.

Goodchild also said the district was “especially cruel towards employees who have requested leaves or accommodations due to a family member being in [a] high-risk category for COVID-19.”

He said CPS rejected approximately 85% of remote work accommodations for employees with members of their households with fragile health conditions and told employees they must report to work in person while their request is pending.

“This is effectively telling employees that they must either go without a paycheck, move out of their homes or risk the lives of their medically fragile relative,” Goodchild said.

Deanna Myron, a clerk at Curie High School, has a family member with cancer at her home.

“I couldn’t live with myself if I brought this home, bottom line,” she said. “I cannot risk it.”

CPS said last week officials were revisiting some of the requests by those caring for vulnerable relatives and said the district expects to grant the vast majority of the requests.

Kala Christmas works as a technology coordinator at Simeon Career Academy and has underlying health issues. She said that after taking one leave of absence this school year already, she’s uncertain how to proceed.

“I am truly afraid for my life,” she said, noting that she’s been having trouble even reaching someone at CPS to discuss the situation.

CTU made a proposal on Tuesday that would allow for the resumption of in-person learning after all employees have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The solution would require extending the school year to a mutually agreed date. In the meantime, in person instruction could resume with CPS pairing faculty and staff who opt to return in person with students who have opted for in-person learning.

The arrangement would be contingent on CPS adhering to strict health and safety protocols that would include weekly COVID-19 testing for employees.

About 40% of teachers and staff who were expected to report to schools Monday didn’t show up for in-person work, school officials said, accusing the CTU of pressuring its members to defy the district’s orders.

In all, about half of teachers and three-quarters of school-based support staff in preschool and special education cluster programs returned to classrooms as expected Monday, accounting for 60% of those 4,400 employees scheduled to go back to specific schools, the district said.

A request for updated figures on the number of teachers and staff who showed up to work in person this week was not immediately returned by either CTU or CPS.

In a sign of the increasing tension between the school system and the teachers union, CPS CEO Janice Jackson Tuesday said that the number of employees who reported to work was “significant considering the fact that they were pressured by the union not to return.”

Those who didn’t show up and elected to continue teaching remotely were sent emails telling them their absence was unexcused. Jackson said those who continue to ignore their orders will face progressive discipline according to the union contract, but that it’s in nobody’s interest to fire teachers.

“We are optimistic that more staff will report to work in the coming days,” Jackson said.

At least 5,800 employees were 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.