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CPS denies high staff absences expected on Nov. 12 led to classes being canceled for ‘vaccine awareness’

The last-minute day off is the latest in a pattern at districts around the country that have decided to keep students home next Friday. Some cite staffing shortages — particularly with a substitute teacher shortage — or mental health.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez speaks during a press conference about COVID-19 vaccinations for children aged five to 11 at Comer Children’s Hospital in the Hyde Park neighborhood, Friday morning, Nov. 5, 2021.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez speaks during a press conference about COVID-19 vaccinations for children aged five to 11 at Comer Children’s Hospital in the Hyde Park neighborhood, Friday morning, Nov. 5, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Two days before Chicago Public Schools called off Nov. 12 classes for “vaccine awareness,” the district offered substitute teachers and staff bonuses to fill in that day because officials predicted “a high volume” of staffing shortages.

The canceled school day is the latest in a pattern at districts around the country that have decided to keep students home next Friday — the day after schools were already set to be closed for Veterans Day — to create a four-day weekend. At many other school systems, officials have cited staffing problems and substitute shortages for their closures or, in some cases, the need to give students and staff a break during a tough year.

But CPS CEO Pedro Martinez was adamant Friday that the day off was meant to allow time for parents to take their kids to get COVID-19 vaccines after the federal government earlier this week found the shots safe and effective for children ages 5-11.

Asked at a news conference with Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady whether teachers and staff requesting time off Nov. 12 played a role in the decision, Martinez said, “We don’t have any indicators that that was going to be the case.

“I would never have canceled classes — in fact, I just don’t do that. Once we have a calendar, I know how much parents plan around that calendar, we just don’t do that, I don’t do that,” he said.

“It is really about starting to protect our children and especially right before the holidays are coming when we know, we’ve seen it, cases rise after holidays. So it’s just so important for us to make that investment now for the rest of the school year.”

The plan for the day off, dubbed “Vaccine Awareness Day” by CPS and now the seventh non-attendance day during November, appeared to come together quickly.

At noon Tuesday, two days before the district announced the canceled classes, CPS’ human resources department offered substitute teachers and staff a $50 bonus on top of their usual pay to work Nov. 12, an email shows.

“Due to Veteran’s Day falling on a Thursday this school year, we predict a high volume of substitute coverage will be needed for Friday, November 12th. To meet the high demand, any substitute who works on November 12th will receive an additional $50 stipend on top of any other stipends,” the district wrote.

CPS was looking for substitute teachers, special education classroom assistants, teacher’s assistants and clerks.

A CPS spokeswoman said late Friday the email to potential subs was a contingency plan and that because of the bonus, fill rates were expected to be in line with averages for the year.

But she said district officials had already been discussing the day off for more than a week. She said Martinez consulted CPS Board of Education members, who plan to approve the calendar change at their next meeting Nov. 17.

Parent reaction has been mixed, some appreciating the idea while others scramble to find child care or question why the district isn’t offering in-school shots like New York City is next week. Getting an appointment that day, some said, would be tricky; there are 210,000 Chicagoans between the ages of 5 and 11.

After some blowback, substitute teachers who had already received assignments for Nov. 12 were told Friday they would be paid for the day. Full-time teachers and staff, meanwhile, have largely welcomed the move during what has been a difficult year back in classrooms. And Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey backed the announcement Thursday.

Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the CTU, wouldn’t say whether she believed staffing concerns contributed to the decision to call off classes, though she insisted the district is woefully undermanned.

“Every day there’s a staffing crisis in the Chicago Public Schools,” Davis Gates said. “It is a staffing crisis that falls squarely on the shoulders of the mayor.”

She said the union has been warning for nearly a year that there aren’t enough district employees, namely teachers, social workers and custodians. Since those efforts began, she said she’s seen the staffing issues firsthand.

“My son, his reading class is being staffed by a substitute right now.” she said. “And that same substitute staffed his math class at the beginning of the year because they just got a teacher. This is an issue systemwide.”

Districts around the country have had difficulty finding substitute teachers. Many subs have said in the age of pandemic learning they’ve grown reluctant to fill in for classrooms where they may be exposed to COVID-19, particularly when kids haven’t been vaccinated and the pay rates and benefits don’t make the job worth the hassle.

Riverside Elementary District 96 and Lyons-Brookfield School District 103 in the southwestern suburbs both increased their day rates for substitute teachers this year to make the jobs more attractive, while the Riverside district also hired a permanent sub for each of its five schools to fill the gaps, according to the Riverside-Brookfield Landmark.

In downstate Belleville, a suburb of St. Louis, the school board approved a day off Nov. 12 in part due to a substitute shortage. A couple dozen teachers in that small district requested vacation days. And when the superintendent began denying time off, staff said they’d take an unpaid day, the Belleville News-Democrat reported.

Student and staff mental health has also been cited by districts mulling whether to make Friday a day off as kids and adults alike adjust to the full return to classrooms.

San Diego public school officials are considering canceling classes that day to “pause for mental health,” with its board expected to vote on the change next week. The Wake County public schools system in North Carolina canceled classes next Friday for its 160,000 students for a “day of reflection.”

A spokesman with Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, a system serving 55,000 students in North Carolina, told a local news station there that the district’s new day off was meant to help students who have “lost time with friends, they’ve lost extracurricular and social activities, they’ve lost opportunities to engage with their teachers.

“One of the recurring themes is that everybody is just tired,” he said.