The first of several showdowns between Chicago Public Schools and its teachers union over whether it is safe to resume in-person learning is taking place on Monday as the initial group of staff reports to buildings.
Staff were armed with letters from the Chicago Teachers Union asserting their right to stay home if they feel unsafe in their schools, and principals had letters to distribute that warn staff they will face consequences if they don’t return to their classrooms.
Some teachers refused to go into their classrooms Monday morning.
“I have … an 85-year-old grandfather and I have an uncle that has Down syndrome [and] I am in and out of that home,” said teacher Quentin Washington. “What does not mean for me? I am supposed to risk being exposed and then carrying it home?”
At the same time, the school district is facing outside pressure to get more buy-in for its phased-in reopening plan. Thirty-two of 50 aldermen signed a letter, released Sunday, that said they were “deeply concerned” about the reopening plan and called on CPS to take several additional steps before going forward, including reaching an agreement with the teachers union on reopening.
In their response to aldermen, CPS CEO Janice Jackson said there are a lot of areas where CPS and CTU agree and that CPS believes an agreement on safety concerns is “within reach.”
But there remain big differences between the union’s demands and the school district’s position, including on the fundamental question of defining a level of COVID-19 cases in the community that’s acceptable before staff and students go into buildings. And the school district is not committing to reaching an agreement prior to the restart of in-person learning.
In fact, more than 5,800 staff were required to show up on Monday. They will spend a week in classrooms teaching preschool students and some special education students remotely. About 6,470 of those students have opted to return for in-person learning beginning Monday, Jan. 11.
Later in the month, thousands more staff will be required to return as they prepare for the 71,100 elementary school students who have opted to start in-person on February 1. All remaining students will continue with remote learning. Overall, 37% of preschool, special education and elementary families chose to return for in-person learning.
The Chicago Teachers Union and many staff worry that members and students will be needlessly exposed to COVID-19, especially with positivity rates still high. WBEZ has learned that union leaders are telling members there could be a strike authorization vote in mid-January. Already, thousands of Chicago Teachers Union members signed a letter pledging to protect the right to decline unsafe work.
For this week, the union gave staff a letter they can provide to principals saying they believe they have a right to a safe environment and that they intend to continue teaching remotely. The school district also gave principals a letter they are supposed to give to staff who refuse to come in. It warns that no-shows will be considered “unauthorized” and that CPS will take “appropriate next steps.”
School district officials have not said what discipline they are considering. “In any profession if you do not show up to work without a valid excuse, there are consequences,” they said in a statement. “The district has not yet determined specific courses of action and we expect there will be different repercussions for different circumstances.”
Teachers and staff are worried about being fired. At least initially, they may be blocked from using Google classrooms to provide remote instruction to their students. But if that happens, it will leave students without teachers. Even before the pandemic, Chicago Public Schools had a substitute and teacher shortage and the pandemic has made it worse..
The union will be testing the contention that CPS must come to an agreement over what is considered safe before staff return.
The union is starting by pledging to defend individual staff members that refuse to go into buildings. But later, the union might test this contention on a larger scale with the potential strike authorization vote.
The school district, on the other hand, is holding firm that it can unilaterally decide whether the environment is safe. While officials stress they have had many discussions with the union, and say they are open to agreement, they argue they don’t need the union’s blessing to move forward. CPS officials stress that the Chicago Department of Public Health has okayed their plan.
So far, there’s been no definitive decision over whether CPS has to bargain with the school district over safety conditions. A state labor board declined last month to ask for an emergency injunction to prevent CPS from opening without an agreement with the union. Two of three board members said it is unclear whether the union has the right to bargain over reopening issues.
But the board allowed the case to go forward. An administrative judge is set to hear it, starting on January 25.
Over the weekend, the school district sent out an email welcoming students to a new chapter that includes in-person learning. In the email, the school district said all necessary steps have been taken to make sure schools are safe, including HEPA air purifiers in all classrooms.
School district leaders insist they want to offer remote learning as a matter of equity. They note that private and suburban schools have offered in-person learning for months. They argue that Chicago Public Schools students, most of whom are Black or Latino and low-income, should also have this option. School district leaders also note that many students are struggling with remote learning.
Some parents have begged the school district to offer this option.
But many have also said they won’t send their children back. Some schools with mostly Black and Latino students in neighborhoods where COVID-19 has hit especially hard have very few students returning. Some schools have no students returning, yet CPS is insisting that staff be in schools.
The parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand says that at least seven elected elected Local School Councils have passed resolutions opposing the resumption of in-person learning. School district officials point out that the councils don’t have authority to determine whether schools open or not.
“Chicago Public Schools believes every parent has the right to make a decision in the best interest of their child — whether to continue learning at home or to transition in-person in January,” CPS said in a statement. “The 77,000 families who chose in-person learning deserve that option to be available to them without judgement.”