On the eve of the reopening of Chicago Public Schools for in-person learning that is strongly opposed by the Chicago Teachers Union and many school staff, Mayor Lori Lighfoot on Friday delivered an impassioned defense of the city’s controversial plan.
“Our children’s lives, indeed their futures, are at stake,” Lightfoot said. “To deny parents this option, is irresponsible and wrong.”
At the same time, Schools CEO Janice Jackson made clear what teachers and staff would face if they do not return on Monday: They’ll be considered absent without leave and will receive no pay going forward.
CPS also confirmed Friday evening that absent teachers will be cut off from the school district’s computer system. That means they will not be able to teach their students virtually through Google Classroom, as many had planned to do. On Thursday, nearly 900 teachers did not show up. If that continues, their students will likely have to work with a different teacher.
But CTU attorney Thad Goodchild said teachers and staff have the right to decline to work in unsafe environments. He said teachers will report to work remotely. “It is illegal for CPS to withhold their pay,” he said.
Lightfoot’s and Jackson’s defense of school openings as safe comes as opposition to the plan has swelled this week. On Monday, half of all teachers required to report to school buildings did not come. By Thursday, that had grown to 58%, CPS said.
Overall, 5,800 teachers and other staff were required back this week to prepare for the start of in-person learning on Monday, Jan. 11. Among this larger group of teachers, teachers aides and others, 60% returned on Monday of this week. By Thursday, Jackson said that was up to 65%.
Also this week, 38 of 50 aldermen signed a letter that said they were “deeply concerned” about the reopening plan. There is a City Council hearing on Monday.
In-person instruction starts on Monday for preschoolers and some special education students followed by the return of elementary school students on February 1. Only 37% of students opted for in-person learning. The majority will continue to learn remotely.
About 6,000 students are due back on Monday, and another 70,000 due back on Feb. 1, Jackson said Friday. This is down slightly from what was previously expected.
City officials said 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. The teachers union strongly disagrees that it’s safe to return. 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.
Just before the mayor began speaking, the CTU sent out a news release itemizing complaints from teachers about poor conditions in schools this week as they returned. These include dirty classrooms, empty hand sanitizer dispensers, windows that wouldn’t stay open and missing air purifiers.
The mayor and Jackson said they want to collaborate with CTU and have met with the union dozens of times. Jackson said CPS is willing to come to an agreement with them, even though CPS argues it’s not required.
But Jackson lashed out at the CTU at Friday’s press conference, accusing the union of moving the “goal posts” and introducing demands on issues outside education, like rent abatement and affordable housing.
Earlier this week, the CTU laid out a new set of proposals for reopening. It suggested making returning to schools voluntary for staff, rather than compulsory, and that the school district offer a mass testing program. Another idea is to delay in-person school until all staff are vaccinated and then extend the school year. The school district hasn’t responded directly to questions about these new demands.
Both the mayor and Jackson acknowledged concerns CTU members and staff have about returning, but insisted they would be safe.
“We know this is a scary time and that the return to in-person instruction will not be easy, but we are confident that when our students and staff return to our schools they will see that the right measures have been taken,” Jackson said.
The union is standing firmly behind its members who say it’s unsafe for them to return to school. Staff were allowed to apply for a leave or to work from home, but so far 58% of staff returning on Monday have been denied the accommodation and told to return to the classroom.
Christine Blust is one of them. She’s a certified school nurse with serious medical issues. She said she can still perform many of her duties remotely. She fears returning to school on Monday.
“I’m sick to my stomach. I’ve been crying at home,” Blust said. “I am very upset about all of this.”
CPS says all requests made because of qualifying medical conditions were granted. But 81% of staff who applied for accommodation because they lived with someone with a serious medical condition were denied.
CPS said it would begin prioritizing those people in a new process that began late last month but hasn’t provided any updated numbers yet.
This story has been updated to say a total of 38 aldermen have signed on to a letter raising concerns about CPS’ reopening plan.