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CPS forging ahead with reopening — and teachers who don’t show up won’t be paid, officials say

“We look forward to seeing you on Monday,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot told teachers and staff Friday.

Posters with measures to ensure social distancing and reducing spread of COVID-19 at South Shore Fine Arts Academy at 1415 E 70th St in South Shore , Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
Markers to ensure social distancing have been placed at CPS schools including in hallways at South Shore Fine Arts Academy at 1415 E. 70th St. in South Shore.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools will move ahead with its plans to reopen classrooms Monday, and staff who are supposed to report to schools but don’t show up will not be paid, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her schools chief said Friday in a final pitch that it’s safe for parents to send their children back to school and teachers to go to work.

That message came despite objections from thousands of staff and parents and three-quarters of aldermen that the school system’s plan for resuming in-person instruction for the first time since March falls short of safety expectations.

The mayor and CPS CEO Janice Jackson played a good-cop, bad-cop routine in telling teachers they both understand their concerns and expect them to report to work. But in a role reversal, it was Jackson attacking the Chicago Teachers Union and Lightfoot unusually dealing a conciliatory, if underhanded, message to her strongest rival.

This time, the mayor — who since the 11-day teachers strike two falls ago has had public and sometimes ugly fights with the city’s educators — tried to flip a switch in her tone. She thanked teachers — whether they are “able to come back in-person or not” — for confronting the challenges posed by remote learning and said she acknowledged their legitimate concerns and fears.

“To our teachers and our staff, we look forward to seeing you on Monday,” Lightfoot said. “I want you to know that I have absolutely heard you. Absolutely heard you. I know you are anxious. I know many of you are scared. I understand that. We will continue to work hard that we are continuing to accommodate as many people as possible.”

Lowering her voice for maximum effect, the mayor continued, “I also know that you care deeply about our children. You wouldn’t be in this profession if you didn’t. You wouldn’t be making the kind of sacrifices that you make … if you didn’t love our children and put their interests first. I want to assure you that we have and we will continue to take every step in our power to keep everyone in our school community safe. That’s why I know, those of you who are able, we’ll be seeing you on Monday ready to unite with your students safely and in-person.”

Asked about the possibility of another strike, the type of question she typically would use to rail against the teachers union, Lightfoot passed. She admonished a questioner not to “go there.”

Lightfoot’s uncharacteristic refusal to engage the union she expects to challenge her re-election positioned Jackson to play the bad cop — a role she also filled earlier this week when she accused the CTU of pressuring its members not to report to work and called a letter from 36 aldermen who are “deeply concerned” about the reopening plan “purely political” and hypocritical.

“We had made progress through the months on a number of key items related to school reopening,” Jackson said. “But I was disappointed earlier this week when we saw the union move the goalposts on their demands, which is something that unfortunately we are all too familiar with.

“In addition to maintaining their demands around safe reopening, they reintroduced older demands like rent abatement and things related to things outside of Chicago Public Schools and a safe return to in-person instruction.”

Jackson said she realizes “a small portion of staff members may choose not to return.”

The share of teachers who followed orders and reported to schools grew slightly by the end of the week, according to figures shared by CPS on Friday. About 65% of 4,300 school-based employees went to work Thursday, up from 60% at the start of the week. The increase was driven by 100 more teachers reporting Thursday than did Monday.

“Those individuals will be deemed absent without leave, and they will not be eligible for pay going forward,” she said. “This is not a measure that we take lightly, and it can be avoided if staff chooses to return to school. We believe we’ve done every single thing within our power to ensure a safe return to school.”

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) said she was “not impressed” by the remarks from Lightfoot or Jackson. She said she’s keeping her son who has Autism home from school on Monday.

“The thought that they don’t have HVAC filtration for every school. ... The thought that we don’t know how they’re cleaning the schools on a consistent basis,” she said. “The thought that we don’t know how many people who’ve been in the schools since COVD actually have COVID makes them irresponsible.”

“I hope people do not send their children there. I hope the teachers strike, to be honest,” Taylor said. “Have they put a nurse in every school? Have they dropped it down to smaller class sizes? If they had done all of the things they were fighting for when they went on strike last time, we wouldn’t even be here.”

Class sizes have been limited to 15 people in a room, and most will likely have even fewer since two-thirds of students opted to stay remote. The district has also spent $42 million on disinfectants, masks, air purifiers and signage to remind students and staff of mitigation rules, plus another $2 million on cleaning.

But many educators who showed up to their schools this week found uneven implementation of those protocols, with some saying rooms were clean and ventilated while others found dirty, cramped classrooms that didn’t have ventilation or windows that open.

Taylor was equally unimpressed with Lightfoot’s open invitation for the news media to visit neighborhood schools — which the mayor and Jackson did Monday without inviting reporters — to see how safe and prepared they are.

“Go visit a school on the South Side without announcing yourself,” Taylor said. “I’ll bet you see the school ain’t clean. I’ll bet you see it’s in chaos. They’re infamous for doing this. They’ll call a school a couple days or a week ahead and say, ‘Janice is coming. The mayor is coming.’ That building is so clean, even the kids are confused. This school ain’t never been so clean.

“Then you walk around … and say, ‘Oh, it’s clean. Oh, we’ve got hand sanitizers. Oh, everybody is wearing their mask.’ And the minute the cameras are gone, it’s back in chaos. Stop it. Stop lying.”

Taylor said as hard as it is for her autistic son to learn remotely “when I don’t know what the heck I’m doing,” she’s keeping him home.

“Everybody wants their kids to go back. My son is depressed. He misses his friends. I’m struggling in my house,” the alderman said. “This is not me not wanting him to be back. This is what’s safe for his health.”