As tension escalates over a possible mass refusal by Chicago Public Schools staff to return to classrooms on Monday, new attendance figures released Friday show that few students are actually choosing in-person learning.
About 19% of students eligible to return for in-person classes walked into school buildings last week as the school district began its transition to in-person learning, according to school district figures.
Those 3,200 students represent just half of what the school district said in December it was expecting. The school district argues that 60% of expected students actually returned because since December, about 1,000 students decided to remain remote. The relatively low turnout among the first wave of in-person students could foreshadow results when another 70,000 elementary students are expected back on Feb. 1.
The school district released these figures just as it faced the prospect of a shut down of in-person learning. In fact, it’s unclear if any school — remote or in-person — will take place in Chicago Public Schools come Monday.
Chicago Teachers Union members are voting on a resolution that calls for staff to refuse to enter school buildings on Monday, even as more than 10,000 are expected to prepare for elementary students to return. The resolution calls for staff to continue doing their jobs remotely.
But on Friday, CPS CEO Janice Jackson said that “if the resolution passes and CTU moves forward, they are in effect having a strike.” When pressed about whether the school district would cancel remote learning for all students on Monday, Jackson just reiterated “I want to be clear if teachers refuse to come to work on Monday, that is a strike.”
It is unclear if the school district would actually cancel class for all 280,000 students to preserve in-person learning for the small percentage of students who are participating now. Jackson said the school district will update families throughout the weekend.
But this is clearly an attempt by school district leaders to shift the blame to the union for any disruption in learning. Meanwhile, the union has tried to center the blame on the school district and mayor. The resolution staff are voting on says they will strike only if they are punished for refusing to teach in-person beginning on Monday.
Both sides have said they want a deal rather than any standoff and are bargaining over the weekend. Yet, with Monday looming, time is running out.
The low attendance numbers could help facilitate a deal. The biggest disagreement between the union and school district is whether staff should be forced to return or if it should be voluntary. Many staff have been denied a request to work from home even if they fear that they or a family member could become severely ill if they contracted the virus. CPS has said it has approved work from home requests or leaves to all staff with qualifying medical conditions.
Union leaders point out that with so few students in school, returning to buildings for staff could be voluntary or at least flexible, with more staff allowed to work from home, not just those with specific medical conditions.
These numbers also might explain why school district leaders seem more amenable to this idea than in the past. Jackson, who had insisted on a mandatory return for staff, said earlier that she would like to compromise.
Jackson also desperately wants to continue reopening plans. She defended opening schools for students, even for only a small number. She said people should not get caught up in percentages.
“The importance is that we have an option for everybody,” she said on Tuesday. “Just because more people choose one thing over the other doesn’t make it right.”
The goal is to eventually have an in-person option for every student, she added. To make that happen, Jackson said the school district needs to phase it in, which it is doing.
Many parents who have started bringing their children to schools say the experience has been good.
Parent Miriam Abdellatif told Jackson at a roundtable on Tuesday that she felt more comfortable bringing her son to Belmont-Cragin Elementary after hearing about all the safety precautions in place. She also has been teaching him to wear his mask.
“I am very sure I cannot do the job that a teacher is doing to make him love what he is studying and to make him do it the right way,” she said.
Parents and teachers have said that the school district should be listening to Black and Latino parents who feel like it is not safe enough to return to school.
Yet Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Jackson say they see reopening the schools as an issue of equity. They point out that private and Catholic schools in the city, many suburban schools and almost all big city school districts are currently offering some in-person learning. They say so should Chicago Public Schools.
Also Friday, the Chicago Department of Public Health and CPS laid out plans for getting school staff vaccinated.
School staff become eligible for vaccination on Monday as part of phase 1b of the city’s vaccination rollout. The school district said it plans to start vaccinating in February and at vaccination centers across the city for CPS employees.
However, city officials said vaccine supplies are limited — only about 32,000 doses for the whole city a week — and 650,000 Chicagoans are eligible in this new phase. They say vaccinating all CPS staff could take months.
Within the larger group of all CPS employees, the school district has different priority groups. It says it’s prioritizing staff according to how long they’ve been working in-person, their level of exposure to others and ability to reliably maintain mitigation measures.
First up are workers in security, food services, clerks and school leaders — many of whom have been in schools for months. Next are elementary and high school teachers. Last is central and network staff. CPS says within each group, staff who are over 65 or have a high risk medical condition may be prioritized.
Chicago Public Schools on Friday also reported that more staff are reporting to schools and fewer are being disciplined for not showing up. According to CPS, 79% of those required back came to schools on Thursday while 55 had their pay docked and were locked out of their virtual classroom for refusing to come back. Last Friday, 76% of staff reported and 87 were being disciplined.