Chicago Students Return To Public School Classrooms For The First Time Since March

Chicago Students Return To Public School Classrooms For The First Time Since March

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Thousands of Chicago Public Schools students returned to classrooms Monday on a chaotic day that pitted city leaders and some CPS families against some teachers, their labor union, nurses and others who decry it as dangerous.

About 900 CPS staff members, including nearly 30% of teachers required to work on Monday, were absent, CPS said Monday evening. This includes staff who didn’t come and a smaller number that failed a health screening. The school district says it considers 145 of them AWOL and, starting Tuesday, they won’t be paid. CPS also said it will cut off their access to the school system’s computer system, which means they won’t be able to teach remotely.

This blow to school staff came soon after the Chicago Teachers Union learned it had scored a long-sought victory in Springfield that could dramatically affect CPS’ reopening plans.

The Illinois Senate voted to repeal a 25-year-old law that restricts the Chicago Teachers Union’s bargaining rights to negotiating over salary and benefits only. With passage of this amendment, the union will have the right to bargain over a range of subjects.

This means CPS may be forced to negotiate an agreement with the union over the district’s reopening plans. Until now, district leaders have said they were willing to negotiate a deal but they weren’t required to do so. The amendment has already passed the House and is set to go into effect when the governor signs it. It was not immediately clear when that would be.

“All this bill does is allow Chicago teachers to negotiate on the exact same items that can be negotiated on in the 851 other school districts in Illinois,” said Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago and chief senate sponsor of the bill.

The return to in-person learning for the school system began Monday morning with teachers and staff gathering outside Nathan Davis Elementary in a Southwest Side community hit hard by COVID-19.

“We pray that no one will be hurt or pass away, because of this premature reopening plan, but we also have to fight back and say ‘no, not yet, not until our schools and communities are ready and we have a plan we can trust,’” said Kate O’Rourke, a bilingual special education preschool teacher at Davis. She spoke Monday morning during a press conference in front of the school.

O’Rourke said three of her students had been expected back but all pulled out. Behind her, teachers held a sign that read “Masks are disposable, students aren’t.” Parents also protested outside a Pilsen elementary school Monday morning and a group of teachers were teaching outside a West Side school in support of their colleagues required to teach inside.

At the same time, as many 6,000 preschoolers and special education students returned to school buildings. At Vick Early Childhood and Family Center on the South Side, 176 students were expected across two campuses, the largest number of any CPS school. As of Tuesday, Vick had 156 students attending.

“I feel confident that the principal was able to create an environment that’s safe for the kids,” said Noreen Higgins, a former CPS employee who was dropping off her son with special needs Monday morning. “It’s important that he gets the safe interaction with peers and I feel confident that they were able to create that here, [but] I acknowledge that not all of CPS has that capability.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and school district leaders repeated Monday their contention that in-person learning is safe with the protocols they have put in place and is desperately needed to prevent students from falling further behind.

“We are doing this for our Black and Latinx students whose attendance and grades have suffered greatly because of the struggles with remote learning,” Schools CEO Janice Jackson said during a visit to Dawes Elementary School Monday morning. “We’re doing this for our youngest learners, who need the physical presence of an adult in order to thrive in a classroom setting, whether that’s in-person or learning at home. And we’re doing this for many of our parents, who are themselves essential workers.”

But some school staff, the majority of aldermen and the Chicago Teachers Union is strongly opposed. CTU says it’s unsafe and argues that remote learning will suffer as teachers try to juggle remote and in-person teaching simultaneously. Nearly 150 CPS schools nurses have also signed a letter saying they think the reopening plan is unsafe. They are urging parents to “carefully think about the risks” associated with sending their children to school.

Monday marked the first wave of students given the option to return to the classroom. On Feb. 1, another 70,000 elementary students are due back. According to CPS’ preliminary data from mid-December, only 37% of all students eligible to return opted for in-person learning. Some 16% of CPS families didn’t respond to the survey.

Most students will continue to learn remotely, and it’s unclear if all of them will be able to work with their regular teachers. Starting Tuesday, CPS said it will begin docking the pay of teachers who refuse to teach from their classrooms. CPS said it will also deny them access to the school district’s computer system, meaning they will not be able to teach their students virtually through Google Classroom, as many had planned. A total of 500 teachers were absent on Monday. Overall, nearly 71% of teachers and 76% of all staff turned up for work on Monday, according to CPS.

On Friday, CTU attorney Thad Goodchild argued that school staff have the right to decline to work in unsafe environments. He said teachers will report to work remotely and should be paid.

“CPS is saying [to parents] ‘We’re not going to let your child see their teacher because their teacher refuses to risk their life?” Goodchild said. He argued it “is illegal for CPS to withhold their pay” if they are willing to work.

In addition to concerns about how simultaneous in-person and remote learning could hurt remote learning, safety is a major issue for the teachers union. They say COVID-19 rates are too high in Chicago, especially in many Black and brown communities, and argue that CPS’ safety efforts are inadequate.

City officials say CPS’ safety mitigation efforts meet or exceed public health standards and, while acknowledging they can’t create a risk-free environment, they point to early research showing school-based COVID-19 transmission rates tend to be low.

Safety issues were also top of mind for aldermen, 38 of whom signed a letter raising deep concerns that were discussed at a City Council hearing on Monday.

“The obvious underlying truth that no one is acknowledging is that this deadly return to in-person learning is about treating CPS like a daycare so we can push the working class back to work, and our city’s normal state of churning through people for profit,” said Edgewater resident Brian Bennett, who spoke during the public comment period.

At times, the hearing got heated with aldermen and CPS officials talking over each other in disagreement with what CPS officials were saying about cleaning and mitigation efforts and what they’ve been hearing from residents.

“There’s a significant amount of fear  there’s fear on behalf of parents, there’s fear on behalf of teachers, and there’s fear on behalf of principals,” Ald. Harry Osterman, 48th Ward of Edgewater, told CPS officials. “And that is not something that is politically motivated or trumped up, but it’s a true thing that me and my colleagues are talking to and listening to when we talk to people.”

School district and CTU officials have been in negotiations all fall but haven’t reached a reopening agreement. The CTU’s latest demands include delaying the start of in-person learning until staff can be vaccinated, and in the meantime, making returning to school voluntary for staff, rather than mandatory, while offering weekly testing.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady Monday said school staff are prioritized in the next phase of vaccinations, and school nurses are eligible to be vaccinated now. She said she expects to be working “over the next few months” to get all adults in school settings vaccinated, starting in February and March. Officials also said schools are exempted from the city’s stay-at-home order order, which was just extended until Jan. 22. 

CPS hasn’t responded publicly to CTU’s demands specifically but Jackson has made it clear she wants all staff and students to return. “This is just the first step in a process to bring everyone back,” she said Monday. “We aren’t trying to create a situation where some people work and some don’t.”

CTU has said it would consider taking a strike authorization vote later this month.

“I am growing weary of this expectation that our union has to go on strike to get a safe reopening plan,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said Friday. “It should not take a work stoppage for workers, for teachers, for clinicians and for parents to feel safe.”

WBEZ education reporters Sarah Karp, Adriana Cardona-Maguigad, Claudia Morell and Susie An and editor Kate Grossman contributed to this story. For more education coverage, follow @WBEZeducation.