Chicago Public Schools began the process to resume in-person learning despite the growing number of COVID-19 cases and multiple new strains of the virus, currently thought to be even more infectious than what has ravaged the city for nearly a year.
The planned reopening has led to tensions with the Chicago Teachers Union and renewed threats of a strike.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson had previously openly threatened that any teacher who did not attend the opening of in-person learning would be locked out of the remote learning infrastructure, which is supplied through Google Classroom, but more recently have walked back those statements.
“We have reached another important milestone today in our efforts to provide in-person learning for our students in the Chicago Public Schools system. We have secured agreement on one other open issue and made substantial progress on a framework that we hope will address the remaining issues,” Lightfoot and Jackson said in a combined statement, on February 1.
“We are calling for a 48-hour cooling off period that will hopefully lead to a final resolution on all open issues. As a result of the progress we have made, and as a gesture of good faith, for now, teachers will retain access to their Google Suite. Students will remain virtual Tuesday and Wednes-
day, February 2 and 3, and we will update the CPS school community as there are further developments.”
Staff members who did go in on the original report date, January 11 for Pre-K and special education students, have also reported serious safety issues at their schools, and a reluctance to return to buildings that lack even the most basic safety protocols that CPS has been promising for months but has yet to deliver to buildings.
“The resolve of educators continues to grow in the face of bullying, in the face of threats, because they understand the seriousness of this pandemic,” Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said during a news conference. “They look at their timelines every day and they see the number of people who are dying. Again, the number of educators whose resolve was strengthened yesterday will turn into more of them teaching remotely from their homes today. That’s telling you all you need to know about the type of partnership that they are fighting to have at the negotiating table and inside the school buildings.”
Seventy percent of Black and brown families continue to reject sending hundreds of thousands of their children back into unsafe school buildings.
At the same time, a growing body of evidence shows that schools in neighborhoods with high COVID-19 rates can increase the spread of the virus. That’s a critical issue for families and educators, who fear both contracting the virus and inadvertently passing it along to elders or medically vulnerable household members.
A growing number of Local School Councils are also passing resolutions urging CPS to wait to reopen until the pandemic is under control. And more than 10,000 CTU members have pledged to oppose the mayor’s plan to reopen classrooms starting this week, with numbers increasing by the day.
CPS expected 5,800 teachers to return and begin preparations for the larger reopening. The move was part of the district’s plan to gradually reopen schools and bring back students, who have been learning remotely since March 2020 when COVID-19 concerns caused schools to close.
“We’re afraid for our lives. We don’t want to lose our jobs,” Lori Torres, a CTU member, said. “The fear of losing our jobs is real. Many of us are the sole income earners in our homes. But the threat of this virus is greater than that fear. And so, we’re staying out, and those of us who are in this second wave, we’re supporting those of you going in today or not.”
CPS promised last summer to hire an additional 400 janitors to address CPS’ chronic school cleanliness issues, but CPS CEO Janice Jackson has admitted that less than half of those workers have been on board, four months later. Most schools still have no nurse or health care worker on site during the pandemic, and CPS has continued to refuse to test aging school ventilation systems for their ability or failure to prevent spread of the virus.