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Chicago Teachers Are Considering a Strike Amid Pandemic Surge

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As the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic enters its dead­liest phase yet, the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) and its allies are resist­ing May­or Lori Lightfoot’s plan to reopen school build­ings and resume in-per­son learn­ing this month.

Over 10,000 CTU mem­bers have pledged their oppo­si­tion to the reopen­ing plan put for­ward by the may­or and Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS), cit­ing seri­ous con­cerns over safe­ty and transparency. 

In-per­son learn­ing is set to resume for pre?K stu­dents on Jan­u­ary 11, and for ele­men­tary school stu­dents on Feb­ru­ary 1. May­or Light­foot and CPS have not yet indi­cat­ed when they plan to reopen high schools.

“Many of our mem­bers are not feel­ing safe at all, they’re feel­ing more anx­ious and scared than ever,” said CTU Pres­i­dent Jesse Sharkey. He added that union mem­bers will hold meet­ings in the com­ing days and weeks and may con­sid­er hold­ing a strike autho­riza­tion vote.

Light­foot and CPS claim their deter­mi­na­tion to reopen schools at this time is a mat­ter of equi­ty for stu­dents of col­or who they say are falling behind under remote learn­ing. But only 31 per­cent of Lati­no fam­i­lies and 33.9 per­cent of Black fam­i­lies feel com­fort­able send­ing their kids back to in-per­son learn­ing. These are the same com­mu­ni­ties that have been hard­est hit by Covid-19. Across the coun­try, oth­er teach­ers’ unions are sim­i­lar­ly protest­ing school reopen­ing plans that they deem unsafe. 

“The biggest obsta­cle to reopen­ing schools is the man­age­ment of CPS, because they’ve failed to reach the stan­dards set by teach­ers and prin­ci­pals for our sup­port of a reopen­ing plan,” said Troy LaR­aviere, pres­i­dent of the Chica­go Prin­ci­pals & Admin­is­tra­tors Asso­ci­a­tion, which also oppos­es the rush to reopen. ?“Con­trary to the words of our may­or and CEO, this reopen­ing plan does not seek to address inequity, it is pro­mot­ing inequity.”

With its mem­bers hand­picked by the may­or, the Chica­go Board of Edu­ca­tion is the only unelect­ed school board in Illi­nois. Mean­while, 36 out of 50 elect­ed alder­peo­ple on the City Coun­cil have signed onto a let­ter express­ing their con­cerns with the school reopen­ing plan. Sim­i­lar­ly, mul­ti­ple local school coun­cils?—?elect­ed bod­ies of par­ents, stu­dents and teach­ers?—?have issuedres­o­lu­tions object­ing to the plan.

“We believe the plan CPS has put for­ward is irre­spon­si­ble. We don’t think we are ready to send chil­dren back to the class­room, and nei­ther should we send teach­ers and staff,” said Alder­woman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez. ?“It seems like every fail­ure of this sys­tem ends up being the respon­si­bil­i­ty of teach­ers and staff to fix and we are always offer­ing them in sac­ri­fice when we can’t make the sys­tems work.”

CTU Vice Pres­i­dent Sta­cy Davis Gates con­curs. ?“You have a sit­u­a­tion right now where prin­ci­pals, para­pro­fes­sion­als, clin­i­cians, class­room teach­ers, elect­ed offi­cials, stu­dents and their fam­i­lies are beg­ging, demand­ing, ask­ing for safe­ty in the mid­dle of a pan­dem­ic,” she said. ?“And then the ques­tion comes to the Chica­go Teach­ers Union, ?‘Are you all going on strike?’ I actu­al­ly think that’s the wrong ques­tion. The right ques­tion has to be, ?‘Why aren’t they?—?the may­or and her team at CPS?—?lis­ten­ing to every­one else?’”

On Mon­day, about 7,000 pre?K and spe­cial edu­ca­tion teach­ers and staff were expect­ed to return to school build­ings, with their stu­dents set to return next week. Although CPS is threat­en­ing to dis­ci­pline edu­ca­tors who refuse to return in-per­son, about 40 per­cent did not reen­ter school build­ings on Monday. 

At Brentano Math and Sci­ence Acad­e­my in Logan Square, teach­ers and staff who had been told to report inside the build­ing on Mon­day instead set up tables and lap­tops in the school’s out­door court­yard, where they held remote learn­ing ses­sions all day in below-freez­ing temperatures.

“One of our biggest respon­si­bil­i­ties is to pro­tect, to guide and to advo­cate for our stu­dents at all times. This means we need to work to ensure their safe­ty, the qual­i­ty of their edu­ca­tion and to set an exam­ple by stand­ing up for our own health and safe­ty too,” said Annie Kel­logg, a spe­cial edu­ca­tion preschool teacher at Brentano.

“We work hard to attain our stu­dents’ trust. This can take weeks and months,” Claire Colt, a social work­er at Brentano, explained. ?“Now because of the anx­i­ety and uncer­tain­ty caused by CPS reopen­ing schools to in-per­son instruc­tion at the height of the pan­dem­ic, there is a chance these rela­tion­ships may be disrupted…This means more loss­es for our stu­dents, pre­cise­ly at a time when they need as much sta­bil­i­ty as possible.”

Accord­ing to a CTU sur­vey, 69 per­cent of edu­ca­tors who chose to return to school build­ings on Mon­day report­ed poor con­di­tions, lack of PPE and inad­e­quate air fil­ters for class­rooms. Light­foot and CPS CEO Jan­ice K. Jack­son post­ed pho­tos on Twit­ter of their vis­it to two ele­men­tary schools?—?but reporters were not invit­ed to these events, nor were they on the mayor’s pub­lic schedule. 

The CTU is demand­ing clear pub­lic health cri­te­ria for reopen­ing schools, specif­i­cal­ly that in-per­son learn­ing only resume when Chicago’s test pos­i­tiv­i­ty rate is below 3 per­cent. The city’s cur­rent pos­i­tiv­i­ty rate is over 10per­cent and rising. 

“They didn’t go by any met­rics or any data, they went by a date,” Alder­man Car­los Ramirez-Rosa said of CPS’s reopen­ing plan. ?“And they picked a date that comes right after a peri­od of time when peo­ple were gath­er­ing indoors and spread­ing coro­n­avirus to each oth­er dur­ing Christ­mas and New Year’s.”

A major point of con­tention between the union and CPS has been the school district’s insis­tence that it can uni­lat­er­al­ly impose a reopen­ing plan with­out first reach­ing a nego­ti­at­ed agree­ment with the CTU. Last month, the Illi­nois Edu­ca­tion­al Labor Rela­tions Board denied the union’s motion for an injunc­tion on the cur­rent reopen­ing plan, but an admin­is­tra­tive judge will hear the case at the end of this month.

“It’s not going to work if the dis­trict sim­ply con­tin­ues dic­tat­ing to us and doesn’t sit at the table and lis­ten to the peo­ple who are most on the ground, who know most about what the spe­cif­ic con­di­tions are like in build­ings,” Sharkey explained.

“We need more than what we are receiv­ing in this moment,” Davis Gates said. ?“And it should not take a fight that shuts every­thing down to get those things.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst.


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