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3,700 CPS workers have been vaccinated or offered a shot, but teachers criticize disorderly rollout

Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady declined on Tuesday to say how many vaccines the city will make available to CPS teachers every week, indicating CPS and CTU are discussing a vaccination strategy.

Megan Dewitt inoculates Nicolas Peralta with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Walmart in the Austin neighborhood, Feb. 2, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

About 3,700 Chicago Public Schools staff members have either received a COVID-19 vaccination or been given the opportunity to sign up for one, the city’s public health commissioner said Tuesday, as negotiations continued between the school system and the Chicago Teachers Union over returning to in-person work.

Vaccines have been central to the bargaining deadlock, with many educators fearful of being forced back into classrooms without first having a chance to receive a shot.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said over the weekend he understands vaccine supply is limited and teachers can’t jump in line ahead of essential workers who have been in-person the whole pandemic. But he was frustrated by what he called a lack of communication on the issue by district officials, and a reluctance to discuss improvements to the vaccine plan. Sharkey has said CPS might get about 1,000 shots each week, but the CTU was asking for more.

In what would be a sign of progress, Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady declined on Tuesday to say how many vaccines the city is making available to CPS teachers every week, indicating the district and union are discussing a vaccination strategy, which would be key to a resolution. Negotiations continued into Tuesday evening with minimal updates the day after the two sides started a “48 hour cooling-off period,” essentially agreeing to limit public attacks while they hammer out a deal.

“What I can tell you is that we’ve worked to really assess the percentage of eligible Chicago residents that the CPS membership makes up,” Arwady said in a news conference announcing a new website for residents to book vaccine appointments. “And we are definitely allocating, even over-allocating, vaccine to that group, recognizing how important it is to get Chicago back to school.”

Arwady said 3,700 CPS employees — none of whom are teachers — “have either been vaccinated or been given the opportunity to sign up for vaccine” through limited partnerships between the district and private providers. Officials did not give a breakdown of the categories of CPS workers who have been inoculated through private partnerships or say if all of them work at schools due to start in-person learning.

The school system is Chicago’s second-largest employer — after the federal government — with 37,000 teachers and staff, indicating about 10 percent have been reached. About 21,000 teachers and staff are required to report to schools when in-person learning resumes.

CPS hasn’t started doing vaccinations itself yet — but Arwady said a “dedicated stream” of doses will be given to the district in mid-February to be administered at four sites across the city.

Other CPS staff have reported receiving shots by seeking them out on their own, including some teachers given accommodations to work remotely because of health reasons, and some high school teachers who are not yet scheduled to return to schools.

Despite Arwady’s confidence and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s comment on national television this week that the city has a “robust vaccination plan” for teachers, many educators have so far been on their own to find a vaccine at a private provider as the prospect of returning to classrooms for the first time during the pandemic bears down on them.

A union attorney described the vaccine rollout as a “bizarre ‘Hunger Games’ situation,” and teachers have said it’s been a frustrating free-for-all to sign up for shots. A few principals have independently sought partnerships with local pharmacies to vaccinate their school staff members. Educators have lambasted city officials for not putting together a more orderly process for educators like in some smaller suburbs and private schools.

What’s more, thousands of school clinicians, nurses and other therapists were among the first group of Illinoisans eligible for the vaccine, yet many said they didn’t know they were included in the 1A vaccination group until colleagues let them know.

“CPS sent out information only after a press conference and a fellow clinician asked why they weren’t informing staff, or assisting them,” a clinician wrote on Facebook this week, criticizing the district. “Teachers at my schools are scrambling around, signing up, helping each other. No direction, organization to help them. And the mayor said they have a robust vaccination plan. I was so pissed off when I heard that.”

A teacher asked in a separate post: “Why isn’t there a roll out plan? Many of the suburban districts are getting the vaccine from their employers, but teachers are going through Jewel Osco — impossible to get an appointment, there just aren’t enough.

“I wish they would have opened up more slowly (maybe K-2 first), vaccinated those teachers, and then moved forward from there.”

Lightfoot, in another national television appearance Tuesday, blamed the impasse between CPS and CTU on the slow vaccine rollout by former President Donald Trump’s administration. Lightfoot and Arwady have previously said, however, that vaccinations are one part of a mitigation strategy — including universal masking, better ventilation and strict cleaning protocols — and they don’t believe all teachers need to be given the shots before returning to work.