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Students gather outside Oscar Mayer Elementary in Chicago on March 16, 2020, after it was announced that all CPS schools would be closed due to COVID-19. CPS is expected to announce a framework for reopening schools for the fall this week..

Manuel Martinez

Chicago Teachers Union Demands Remote Learning Only This Fall

The Chicago Teachers Union is demanding that city schools continue remote learning in the fall, making the case that there’s no way to safely bring students into school as cases of COVID-19 increase.

“The only plan CPS has available right now is one that mitigates harm, which means there is still risk and people will still encounter harm,” CTU president Jesse Sharkey wrote in a letter to the public.

This declaration came on the same day Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot promised the school district would be unveiling its plan soon for the coming school year. CPS said a preliminary framework for the new school is expected by the end of the week. Lightfoot indicated her plan will include in-person instruction, but that it may be adjusted if the COVID-19 situation changes.

“We’re not going to make that decision in mid-July, when school doesn’t reopen until after Labor Day,” Lightfoot said. In the past, she has talked about the need to have classes in session, especially for younger students who may struggle online. School is scheduled to resume on Sept. 8.

In a statement, CPS spokesman Michael Passman added that the school reopening framework “will be introduced this week to gain feedback from students, parents and staff, but a decision on the potential for in-person instruction will not be made until closer to the school year when we can fully assess the public health situation at that time.”

“The health and safety of our students and staff is paramount,” he said, “and our planning for the fall will be guided by the best available data and guidance from state and local health officials.”

Lightfoot caused some alarm earlier this week when she said a final decision on school reopening plans wouldn’t come until late August.

Wednesday morning, she clarified that the school district will be giving parents an idea of what to expect so they can plan for it.

But the union got in front of the mayor and school district by releasing a 10-page report Wednesday evening that lists demands for safely returning to school buildings. Depending on whether instruction is all or partially in-person, it estimates it would cost between $450 million and $1.7 billion.

Among the many demands for going back to school buildings, the union is calling for class sizes of no more than 12 students, extra services for disabled students to make up what was lost during the shutdown and wide-ranging mental health support for students and school staff who have been traumatized.

The union also is pushing for measures that will help communities in general, including paid sick leave for parents and more contract tracing.

Meanwhile, parents and teachers in Chicago have become increasingly frustrated that the school district has held off announcing firm plans. The Los Angeles Unified School District announced earlier this week that school will continue to be online when it opens on Aug. 18. And New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said classroom attendance at schools in his city will only be in-person one to three days a week this fall.

Also, numerous suburban school districts have announced plans, with many choosing a hybrid model in which students will do a mix of online and in-person classes. Oak Park and River Forest High School has said it will likely be entirely online. Many suburban districts have also said plans may be adjusted close to the first day of school if circumstances change.

Read more: All of WBEZ’s coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak in Chicago and the region

Lightfoot and school district officials said once they announce the “framework” for school reopening later this week, they will start a “robust” period of engagement with parents and teachers.

But some are disappointed that parents and teachers weren’t brought in at the beginning.

Teacher Tara Stamps said the moment CPS knew school was going to be closed for the rest of the spring, parents and teachers should have been in discussions about how reopening could occur.

“I am not interested in any framework, in anything where the only thing you can tell me is that the mayor met with the CEO, met the board and in that there’s no parent voice, there is no teacher agency, there is no agency for the people who clean the building, who serve the lunches,” Stamps said.

The school district has been surveying parents about whether they feel comfortable having their children in school or with a hybrid model in which students do a mix of some remote learning and in-person instruction. CPS also said it’s been consulting with the teachers union.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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