As the coronavirus pandemic enters its deadliest phase yet, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and its allies are resisting Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to reopen school buildings and resume in-person learning this month.
Over 10,000 CTU members have pledged their opposition to the reopening plan put forward by the mayor and Chicago Public Schools (CPS), citing serious concerns over safety and transparency.
In-person learning is set to resume for pre-K students on January 11, and for elementary school students on February 1. Mayor Lightfoot and CPS have not yet indicated when they plan to reopen high schools.
“Many of our members are not feeling safe at all, they’re feeling more anxious and scared than ever,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. He added that union members will hold meetings in the coming days and weeks and may consider holding a strike authorization vote.
Lightfoot and CPS claim their determination to reopen schools at this time is a matter of equity for students of color who they say are falling behind under remote learning. But only 31 percent of Latino families and 33.9 percent of Black families feel comfortable sending their kids back to in-person learning. These are the same communities that have been hardest hit by Covid-19. Across the country, other teachers’ unions are similarly protesting school reopening plans that they deem unsafe.
“The biggest obstacle to reopening schools is the management of CPS, because they’ve failed to reach the standards set by teachers and principals for our support of a reopening plan,” said Troy LaRaviere, president of the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association, which also opposes the rush to reopen. “Contrary to the words of our mayor and CEO, this reopening plan does not seek to address inequity, it is promoting inequity.”
With its members handpicked by the mayor, the Chicago Board of Education is the only unelected school board in Illinois. Meanwhile, 36 out of 50 elected alderpeople on the City Council have signed onto a letter expressing their concerns with the school reopening plan. Similarly, multiple local school councils—elected bodies of parents, students and teachers—have issued resolutions objecting to the plan.
“We believe the plan CPS has put forward is irresponsible. We don’t think we are ready to send children back to the classroom, and neither should we send teachers and staff,” said Alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez. “It seems like every failure of this system ends up being the responsibility of teachers and staff to fix and we are always offering them in sacrifice when we can’t make the systems work.”
CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates concurs. “You have a situation right now where principals, paraprofessionals, clinicians, classroom teachers, elected officials, students and their families are begging, demanding, asking for safety in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “And then the question comes to the Chicago Teachers Union, ‘Are you all going on strike?’ I actually think that’s the wrong question. The right question has to be, ‘Why aren’t they—the mayor and her team at CPS—listening to everyone else?’”
On Monday, about 7,000 pre-K and special education teachers and staff were expected to return to school buildings, with their students set to return next week. Although CPS is threatening to discipline educators who refuse to return in-person, about 40 percent did not reenter school buildings on Monday.
At Brentano Math and Science Academy in Logan Square, teachers and staff who had been told to report inside the building on Monday instead set up tables and laptops in the school’s outdoor courtyard, where they held remote learning sessions all day in below-freezing temperatures.
“One of our biggest responsibilities is to protect, to guide and to advocate for our students at all times. This means we need to work to ensure their safety, the quality of their education and to set an example by standing up for our own health and safety too,” said Annie Kellogg, a special education preschool teacher at Brentano.
“We work hard to attain our students’ trust. This can take weeks and months,” Claire Colt, a social worker at Brentano, explained. “Now because of the anxiety and uncertainty caused by CPS reopening schools to in-person instruction at the height of the pandemic, there is a chance these relationships may be disrupted…This means more losses for our students, precisely at a time when they need as much stability as possible.”
According to a CTU survey, 69 percent of educators who chose to return to school buildings on Monday reported poor conditions, lack of PPE and inadequate air filters for classrooms. Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice K. Jackson posted photos on Twitter of their visit to two elementary schools—but reporters were not invited to these events, nor were they on the mayor’s public schedule.
The CTU is demanding clear public health criteria for reopening schools, specifically that in-person learning only resume when Chicago’s test positivity rate is below 3 percent. The city’s current positivity rate is over 10 percent and rising.
“They didn’t go by any metrics or any data, they went by a date,” Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa said of CPS’s reopening plan. “And they picked a date that comes right after a period of time when people were gathering indoors and spreading coronavirus to each other during Christmas and New Year’s.”
A major point of contention between the union and CPS has been the school district’s insistence that it can unilaterally impose a reopening plan without first reaching a negotiated agreement with the CTU. Last month, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board denied the union’s motion for an injunction on the current reopening plan, but an administrative judge will hear the case at the end of this month.
“It’s not going to work if the district simply continues dictating to us and doesn’t sit at the table and listen to the people who are most on the ground, who know most about what the specific conditions are like in buildings,” Sharkey explained.
“We need more than what we are receiving in this moment,” Davis Gates said. “And it should not take a fight that shuts everything down to get those things.”