CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools will reopen for some students Monday for the first time since last spring amid an escalating clash between city officials, who are threatening to withhold pay from teachers who do not show up, and the powerful Chicago Teachers Union, which alleges that schools are not properly outfitted to combat the coronavirus.
Teachers who don’t show up for work on Monday “will be deemed absent, without leave and will not be eligible for pay,” said Janice Jackson, CEO of the nation’s third-largest school district.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she is determined to reopen schools Monday, starting a phased return to in-person learning, and that city officials are “doing everything we can to place safety in this pandemic at front and center.”
But teachers, many of whom returned to classrooms last Monday to start to prepare, said they found conditions unacceptable and termed the demand for them to start teaching “heartless.”
The situation sets up a potential showdown between a powerful teachers union that has a history of striking and a school district that is determined to open despite a rise in coronavirus cases.
Thad Goodchild, lawyer for the Chicago Teachers Union, said it is illegal if the district withholds pay for work being done remotely, as it has threatened to do, or if the district locks teachers out of Google Classroom so they are unable to virtual teach their students if they don’t return in person.
Over the weekend, the union and district were continuing to meet, Goodchild said. If they can’t come to agreement, he said, “all options are on the table.” He said a strike was possible “if CPS and the mayor retaliate against the teachers who have been directed to report in person on Monday” but choose to stay remote.
Goodchild said the union hopes the district will “come to its senses” and hold off its plan until teachers, who are considered essential workers, can be vaccinated.
Jackson has said reopening is “not a measure we take lightly,” adding that an agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union is not necessary to reopen. “Operationally, we are prepared to open and we can conduct school on Monday,” she said.
In October 2019, the union, which has 25,000 teachers, organized a 14-day walkout, its longest teacher strike in more than three decades. It reached an agreement with Lightfoot that included reducing class sizes and hiring more social workers and school nurses, among others.
“This is our opportunity to set a new course for who we are as a city,” Lightfoot said Friday.
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Under the city’s tiered plan, pre-K and students who are diverse learners of all ages that need “moderate to intensive” support or families that choose to send their children are being brought back first. Jackson estimates approximately 6,000 students in those demographics will return Monday.
An additional 70,000 students have opted to return Feb. 1, when the district plans to reopen in-person teaching to kindergarten through eighth grader. There has been no date set for high-schoolers to physically return to school, but some anticipate it may be in March.
On Monday, nearly half of the teachers who were supposed to return a week before students showed up for work. Some Chicago teachers taught remotely for hours outside their schools in 27-degree weather to protest the district’s reopening plan.
“I don’t really want to go back, but there wasn’t a way for me not to,” said Heather Debby, a seventh-grade English teacher who has twin 4-year-old girls in preschool and a husband who is also a CPS teacher. “We could take an unpaid leave of absence but that’s not really an option. I like my house.”
Others, like Diana Muhammad, a physical education and dance teacher at Beasley Academic Center, who spoke during a Chicago Teachers Union news conference Friday, said she reluctantly agreed to come back in December. But then her 5-year-old daughter became sick with “various symptoms all over the place” for a week before waking up one morning unable to see.
After spending a week in the hospital, Muhammad said her daughter was diagnosed with Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome, also called MIS-C, that affects different organs in the body after having COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“I had no idea she had COVID because like many kids, she was asymptomatic,” Muhammad said about a disease the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said disproportionately affects Black and Latino children. “It’s only affecting young children and happens four to six weeks after they’ve come into contact with COVID.”
The situation has changed Muhammad’s perspective.
“I’m told this is rare,” Muhammad said. “But how long will it be rare as cases continue to rise? I’m seriously concerned about us rushing back without having a well-thought-out plan.”
The city has a seven-day rolling positivity rate of over 10%, with the state of Illinois surpassing the grim milestone of 1 million reported coronavirus cases on Thursday, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Marielle Fricchione, medical director of the Chicago Department of Public Health, has said she supports CPS reopening, citing virus positivity rates that are lower now than in the spring and fall.
The city had a seven-day rolling positivity rate of 15.9% in November and 30% in April, according to Chicago’s COVID Dashboard, and infection rates have begun climbing again from an 8.4% low in December. According to the district, 640 adults and nine students have contracted COVID.
Less than 40% of pre-K through eighth-grade families are opting to send their children back to school.
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The district has created “care rooms” and “care pods” to isolate sick children that include hospital-grade pop-up temporary structures that some have likened on social media to “plastic cages” for children that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement might use.
On the city’s West Side, in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, James Russell Lowell Elementary School has asked teachers to sign a form that will not hold the school liable for any health consequences in the building.
Lena Carrillo, a preschool special-education teacher on Chicago’s North Side, said out of the 111 students that have enrolled for pre-K at her school, only four students are returning in person and none from her classroom.
Carrillo, a mother of two, put her children in Catholic private school and said there’s no comparison. One of the biggest differences, besides having a faith-based education, is the cleaning protocols, which has become a problem for the district since Chicago Public Schools outsourced its custodial services, she said.
Carrillo says her public school bathrooms have been so dirty that some of her parents have offered to clean them. “I had to tell them no, we appreciated the offer, but that’s the job of the custodians,” said Carrillo, who has been teaching in Chicago for 14 years. “We used to just have a janitor that was a CPS employee, but that changed when everything started getting outsourced. Now everything is gross. We’re cleaning all of our own stuff.”
When Carrillo went to her classroom in October to set up the room she said she found it filthy.
“The fact that there was grime and dirt, and no kids had been there since March but custodians had been there, was mind boggling,” she said.
The problem was well documented after Chicago Public Schools’ facilities chief, Leslie Fowler, was ousted in 2018, following inspections finding dozens of dirty buildings that repeatedly failed cleanliness audits.
Last March, as the pandemic took hold, the Chicago Board of Education voted to end its relationship with two food service and facilities management companies — Aramark and Sodexo — worth hundreds of millions of dollars because of systemic problems, but agreed to a contract extension to continue outsourcing through July 1 until a solution can be found.
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Carrillo says she’s also concerned about the air quality and ventilation system, which, she said, passed a control test solely on the basis that she has a functioning window in her classroom. Carrillo said she was also given an air filter, but it’s good for only 500 square feet, which is smaller than her classroom.
Nancy Wright, a preschool teacher on Chicago’s far North Side, said she’s also concerned about cleaning and air quality and went on DonorsChoose.org to secure two air purifiers before the district began giving them out.
In anticipation of opening, Wright said she tried to walk through protocols about what happens once her students get to school and the health procedures for temperature checks, but has struggled to get answers.
Wright said parents will fill out a health-screener application before getting to school, but she was told the teachers won’t have access to the health screener for privacy reasons. “So how do I know if my students passed the health screener?” Wright said.
Wright also said it’s not realistic to stay socially distant with young children as a preschool teacher.
“So what is a realistic amount of space that we can give them?” said Wright, who is going to be working in a classroom of 15 children with two other adults. “There’s been no real guidance. The thought of comeback right now without a real concise plan is scary.”
Lightfoot and Jackson have been vocal about the need to help Black and Latino communities.
“They deserve access to an in-person learning option,” Jackson said. “We’ve seen attendance, enrollment and grades drop dramatically. No one is hardest hit more than our African American students on the South and West sides of Chicago. They are struggling to make remote learning work for reasons beyond their control.”
Despite Chicago being a school district where more than 80% of students are Black and Latino, a majority who signed up for in-person learning are White.
Of the 207,999 students enrolled in CPS, only 37.2% opted for in-person learning. Of the 77,343 students who opted in, the majority — 67.5% — are White. Only 31% of Latino, 33% of Asian and 33.9% of Black families said they would send their children to in-person classes.
“We have very high numbers of COVID in the Black and Latino communities,” said Alderman Jeanette Taylor, a former community organizer whose ward covers the Englewood, Back of the Yards and Washington Park neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side.
“Not all the schools have enough HVAC filters. Nothing CPS can do will convince me that it’s safe enough for young people to go back,” said Taylor, who is keeping her teenage autistic son at home. “I appreciate and love the care my son gets because he has a support system. Teaching an autistic kid is not like regular young people, so he needs that support, but not at the cost of him dying.”
Alderman Matt Martin, whose ward covers the affluent Lincoln Square neighborhood on the city’s North Side, calls it a “complicated issue.”
“I’ve spoken with a number of families who are not comfortable with returning their children and I’ve spoken with others who badly want it,” he said.
On Jan. 3, Martin sent a letter, that 38 of the city’s 50 alderman have now backed, to Lightfoot and Jackson expressing concern about the reopening of in-person learning.
Chicago aldermen have scheduled a hearing on the CPS reopening plan for Monday, the day the first group of students are slated to return for in-person learning.
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Reiss is a freelance journalist based in Chicago.