The Pandemic Has Set Off A Power Struggle About Teachers’ Right To Free Speech

Chicago Public Schools wants to discipline teachers who it says misled parents on in-person school. Teachers say this is about silencing them.

WBEZ
The first wave of Chicago Public Schools students have returned for in-person learning. Here, students at Beasley Academic Center go back to school on Feb. 12, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
WBEZ
The first wave of Chicago Public Schools students have returned for in-person learning. Here, students at Beasley Academic Center go back to school on Feb. 12, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

The Pandemic Has Set Off A Power Struggle About Teachers’ Right To Free Speech

Chicago Public Schools wants to discipline teachers who it says misled parents on in-person school. Teachers say this is about silencing them.

In the wake of the intense battle between over restarting in-person learning, Chicago Public Schools is pursuing disciplinary action against teachers who they say crossed the line when communicating to parents about their concerns.

This is prompting a heated debate about when it’s appropriate for a school district to intervene in the relationship between teachers and parents and what precedent punishment sets.

The Chicago Teachers Union, many staff and some parents worry this could deter teachers from alerting the public to potential problems. That, they say, could be especially problematic during the pandemic.

The CTU argues this is mostly about controlling teachers. CTU Deputy General Counsel Thad Goodchild notes 114 teachers were initially written up, but now CPS is only pursuing 34 cases.

“If they were actually really concerned about the underlying behavior and wanting to address it, if there was a legitimate concern, then they wouldn’t drop those,” Goodchild said. “This is more of a power struggle and wanting to send a message.”

But the school district says the teachers provided misleading information and abused the trust of parents. In fact, school district officials say most complaints came from parents after interactions with teachers.

Officials said some parents switched their children from in-person to remote after hearing from their teachers. At the same time, the district and principals are trying to convince families it is safe and better for students to be in classes.

“Communicating deceptive information directly to parents in an attempt to change their personal learning preferences is a form of intimidation that deliberately undermines principals’ efforts to provide timely, accurate information to families,” school district officials said in a statement.

As examples of inaccurate statements, the school district said teachers told parents that classroom libraries would have to be packed up and their windows would have to be open in winter months. They said one teacher wrote to parents: “While the child mortality rate is low, it is not non-existent. Having lost a child myself, I can tell you that this is not a club you want to join.”

The school district also said the CPS inspector general is investigating.

But one teacher facing discipline said the letter she and her colleagues sent out to parents simply described how classes would look once in-person learning began.

“The reason we sent it out in the first place was because I was receiving a lot of questions from parents and from students in our daily classes asking about lunch and recess,” the teachers said. WBEZ is not identifying her because of concerns of retaliation.

She said most of the information on how the classes would work came from CPS documents. But she does admit that teachers told parents that they believed staying at home would be the safest option. It went on to say they would support whatever decision parents made.

The staff are being charged with a range of violations of CPS’ acceptable communication-use policy or insubordination. The acceptable-use policy violation stems from staff sending parents communications through their personal email or to the parents’ personal email addresses.

Most are now facing a warning that would go on their record.

Goodchild called the charges “ridiculous” and said the union will fight them. He believes they will win. He said the union thinks the school district is trying to silence outspoken teachers.

“This is an effort by CPS to retaliate against some of the union’s most prominent activists for trying to improve school conditions,” he said. Goodchild said it is also an attempt to scare teachers and chill speech.

Parent Heather Reid said it is important for teachers to provide parents with insights, especially when the school district and the city are so invested in returning to classrooms. At a local school council meeting at Ravenswood School, where her children attend, it was said publicly that several teachers at the school are facing discipline. It was also confirmed by the teachers union.

Reid said she and her children love and respect their teachers and it is one reason why she keeps her children there.

“We want those lines of communication open — now and always,” she said.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.