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How many Chicago teachers have been vaccinated? No one knows — leaving serious blind spots for CPS

The district is trying to avoid repeating classroom conditions for thousands of students who have been learning from a remote teacher while they are at school.

Carmen Romero De Vaca, 52, a special education classroom assistant at James B. McPherson Elementary School in Ravenswood, receives her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Weiss Memorial Hospital on the North Side.
Carmen Romero De Vaca, 52, a special education classroom assistant at James B. McPherson Elementary School in Ravenswood, receives her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Weiss Memorial Hospital on the North Side.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

In three weeks, up to 121,000 Chicago Public Schools students could be learning in classrooms at the start of the fourth academic quarter, doubling the number of students who returned this month.

More kids — including potentially tens of thousands of high schoolers for the first time — means a need for more adults. And bringing back more educators would require more vaccinations, per a district agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union.

As CPS races to get shots in arms by the mid-April expansion of in-person learning, how exactly is that progress coming along?

Nobody really knows.

Records published on CPS’ website show 16,200 workers — about 34% of the district — have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and the district says all staff has been offered appointments to get shots. But fewer than half of CPS employees have disclosed their vaccination status to the district, meaning thousands more have likely gotten a shot but not yet told CPS.

The result is that even Matt Lyons, CPS’ human resources chief and the manager who should have the foremost knowledge of those vaccination numbers, has no solid idea how many employees have been inoculated.

“I think it’s safe to say that we’re likely north of 50%, maybe even approaching 60% who have a first dose,” Lyons estimated in an interview Friday.

Blind spots

The “negative consequence” of a low survey response rate, he said, is officials are planning their fourth quarter staffing needs with serious blind spots. To the extent possible, the district is looking to avoid repeating third quarter learning conditions for thousands of students who, according to a survey by the principals association, have been learning from a remote teacher while they sit in class.

Both CPS and CTU acknowledge more educators will be back in schools in the fourth quarter — the question remains how many more.

For its part, the union has told members to be wary of letting the district know whether they’ve gotten a shot — a move that has irked CPS leaders — because the district is revoking third quarter work-from-home accommodations as soon as workers are fully vaccinated.

CTU attorney Thad Goodchild said he recognizes the need for CPS to know how many people are vaccinated, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of accommodations being revoked. The previous reopening agreement seemed to indicate those would last through the third quarter regardless of vaccination.

Lyons said CPS will assume those who don’t respond to the survey ahead of the fourth quarter have either been vaccinated or declined a shot, with both possibilities requiring a return to work by April 19. Anyone who has an accommodation and tells the district they haven’t yet gotten a vaccine but has made a good faith effort to do so will be allowed to continue working from home until two weeks after their second dose, he said. Both plans sounded fine to Goodchild since anyone applying for a renewed accommodation would need to disclose their vaccine status as part of that request, anyway.

Middle school students wait in line to check in with CPS Staff at Richardson Middle School at 6018 S Karlov Ave in West Lawn, Monday, March 8, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Middle school students wait in line to check in with CPS Staff at Richardson Middle School at 6018 S Karlov Ave in West Lawn, Monday, March 8, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Anthony Vazquez, Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The district granted two types of accommodations to K-8 staff.

Lyons said the first group of people — those with personal accommodations for medical conditions — will be told to return to in-person work as soon as they’re fully vaccinated, except for a few with more serious medical issues or religious exceptions.

The second group of people — who live with someone who’s medically fragile — is trickier because it’s unknown whether vaccinations stop transmission of the virus. The district will try to grant as many of those extension requests as possible for the fourth quarter, Lyons said, but some changes may be necessary to meet staffing needs as more students opt to return.

In all, 5,800 — 28% — of the 20,700 returning K-8 staff, have been allowed to continue working from home this quarter, including 3,750 K-8 teachers. The 15,000 employees who have already been back will continue working in-person in the fourth quarter.

“The problem that we have [for next quarter] is that while the need for accommodations and leaves is going to be smaller by virtue of vaccine availability, it’s still going to be there and it’s not going to be insignificant,” Goodchild said.

CPS initially wanted to bring workers back before being vaccinated. But after strong advocacy from the CTU in negotiations, the district has orchestrated thousands of vaccination opportunities for its employees at private clinics and has administered more than 1,500 doses each of the past five weeks at four sites available only to CPS teachers, staff and contract workers.

1,000 appointments available

Those CPS vaccination centers, however, have 1,000 available appointments as of this week, schools chief Janice Jackson said at Wednesday’s school board meeting, even as the rest of the public fights for shots at pharmacies and other providers. CPS and CTU officials said those unclaimed slots could be due to teachers having already received shots privately before the sites opened, or workers distrusting the district — which still remains a big problem going forward after years of contention with the union — and not wanting a vaccine through their employer.

In high school reopening negotiations, meanwhile, Goodchild said the CTU is looking for all high school educators to be fully vaccinated before being required to return to schools because their risk is greater since teenagers transmit the virus like adults. With 26,000 high schoolers — about 36% — indicating they’d like to resume in-person learning this spring, the vaccination timeline for them appears murky at best. CPS has no idea how many high school educators have been vaccinated.