Shavon Coleman is passionate about working with four-year-olds in the low-income neighborhood of North Lawndale on Chicago’s West Side. She wants them to get the same type of early education as children receive in wealthy neighborhoods.
“I absolutely love my job,” said Coleman, a teacher’s assistant at Lawndale Community Academy. Coleman graduated from the school and her grandfather was the gym teacher there for decades.
But Coleman is not willing to go back into the building to work yet. She worries about catching COVID-19 and passing it on to her young daughter, who has severe respiratory issues, or her mother, who has a heart condition. She applied to the school district to work remotely, but her request was denied.
“I don’t care how old you are or how young you are, there’s nothing worse than losing a child or mother,” she said. Coleman recently had an aunt die from complications from COVID-19 and her cousin is in the hospital.
As part of a mass action by the Chicago Teacher Union, thousands of Chicago Public Schools teachers and staff have been refusing to return since Wednesday and are working remotely only. They say they won’t go in until the union and the school district reach a deal over reopening. The union and the school district came to agreement over four issues on Saturday, but have yet to reach a comprehensive deal. Negotiations are scheduled to continue on Sunday.
A fight over accommodations for staff like Coleman, and hundreds of others who live with someone who is medically compromised, is a main reason a deal remains elusive.
Many school employees have had their requests to work remotely denied. CPS says it’s only guaranteeing remote work for staff with a medical condition of their own and, in its latest proposal, for staff who are the primary caregiver for a family member at elevated risk. But officials say the definition of primary caregiver is going to be narrow.
The union wants remote accommodations approved for all staff who have a family member at home who is at higher risk of COVID-19 complications. The school district says it’s trying to provide as many accommodations as possible, but says it needs a certain number of staff in schools to offer in-person learning.
Already, principals tell WBEZ they are worried about staffing their schools. The school district has allowed them to hire staff to fill the gaps, but as more accommodations are approved, they are having to switch schedules. One principal said she is not sure parents know that many students won’t have certified teachers when in-person instruction resumes.
The school district hopes to offer in-person learning on Monday to as many as 67,000 elementary, preK and special education students whose parents opted in. It hosted a roundtable on Friday with doctors who said the emerging research shows it is safe for children to return to schools.
“It turns out that school environments where there is mitigation going on, where people are expected to wear masks, where there’s distancing… actually lowers the risk of children getting COVID-10,” said Dr. Daniel Johnson, an expert in pediatric infectious disease at the University of Chicago. “The other thing that has been shown is that they are not taking COVD home.”
But adults are about as likely to get COVID-19 in school as they are to get it in the community, he added. Many schools are in neighborhoods with high positivity rates, and many school staff with medical concerns say they don’t venture out much.
Coleman, for example, said she doesn’t allow visitors in her home and she would not let her daughter attend her best friend’s birthday party.
Coleman’s six-year-old daughter was born with severe respiratory issues that have required repeated hospitalization for breathing treatments. Also living with them is Coleman’s mother, who has a pacemaker and has had a stroke. Her mother also works as a CPS teacher’s assistant and has a remote work accommodation pending.
Coleman is terrified about contracting COVID-19 at school and passing it to her daughter or mother.
Coleman said she has not heard anything new from the school district about her request to work from home. She was supposed to report to her school in early January, but didn’t go in. She has been locked out of her virtual classroom since January 11, when preschool students began returning for in-person school.
During negotiations, union officials say there have been tense discussions about which diseases should be considered when granting a remote accommodation for a primary caregiver.
Some situations are especially delicate. Dwayne Reed, for example, has been working outside his South Side school for the last week. His wife is eight months pregnant with their first child.
“A baby boy,” Reed said excitedly. Pregnancy has been known to increase the risk of severe COVID-19 complications.
Reed said he asked for an accommodation to work from home for just another month until the baby is born. But his accommodation was denied. He said that the school district responded it would be a hardship for his school.
He said there’s no way he is going to put his wife or his baby in greater danger and return to teach in a class.
Other staff have asked to continue working from home because they have young children and want to be able to care for them.
With negotiations ongoing, the school district has yet to say how many or what type of accommodations have been approved for staff that are supposed to return on February 1. But among the first group of staff that returned on Jan. 4, people who asked to stay home with children were the least likely to be approved.
Meanwhile, others are still awaiting word.
One teacher asked for a remote accommodation because she lives with her mother, who has stage 4 cancer. She didn’t want to be identified to protect her mother’s privacy. The school district lost her paperwork and then asked her to resubmit it, she said. As of Friday, she still didn’t know if she was going to be approved.
“After all these years of service — I have given 27 years of my life as an employee,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how this weighs on my heart.”