CHICAGO — With many of Chicago’s public schools reopening next week for the first time in nine months, teachers, staffers, students and their families are scrambling to decide whether they feel safe going back as the city continues to battle the pandemic.
Chicago Public Schools data obtained by WBEZ paints a complicated picture of what to expect when schools reopen Jan. 11 for pre-kindergarten and special education students, and as more students return to school in upcoming months.
Most of the 7,002 pre-K and special education cluster program teachers and staffers asked to return to school Monday have agreed to do so, according to CPS data. A total of 4,684 teachers and staffers didn’t request accommodations, meaning they didn’t ask to work from home or take a leave of absence, district officials said.
But nearly one-third — about 2,000 teachers and staffers — did ask to be excused from in-person instruction. District officials only granted 861 of those requests, though 308 inquiries are still pending.
The data highlights the struggle of teachers like Rachel Blundy.
Blundy, a second grade teacher at Prescott Elementary in Lincoln Park, requested to work from home out of fear she’d spread COVID-19 to her live-in parents, who are elderly and have medical conditions.
But Blundy’s request was turned down, so she is applying again through a different channel. If she doesn’t get approval, she said she plans to apply for a leave of absence — but that might mean she’ll have to forego pay for several months.
“It’s just frustrating because I literally cannot let my parents get sick right now,” Blundy said. “CPS is making it very hard for teachers. A lot of us are having to make really big decisions about our careers, what we can afford to do, how safe we feel. It’s very sad.”
Blundy is also the parent of two CPS students, one at Ole A. Thorp Elementary Scholastic Academy in Portage Park and another at Darwin Elementary in Logan Square. She said she doesn’t feel comfortable sending her kids back to school, either.
“Our building is 120 years old. Before the pandemic, we struggled with a lot of things like working sinks and toilets, warm water and soap, leaky roofs, windows not working. So I already know my building is not ready,” she said of Prescott. “I don’t have a lot of knowledge about my children’s buildings, but they’re also very old so I assume the buildings are similar.”
Blundy and other teachers and staffers who don’t support returning to classrooms say the district’s plan lacks critical details. Simple things such as whether teachers and students will get tested for coronavirus routinely and how mask-wearing and social distancing will be enforced at lunchtime or on the bus aren’t being addressed, they said.
“I’ve seen other districts have had a lot more detailed plans, but that’s just how CPS does things. They just create a general plan and expect everything to fall in place. There’s too diverse of needs to really do that,” said a school clinician who asked not to be named.
Despite battles with the Chicago Teachers Union and resistance from some local school councils, district and city leaders have long defended CPS’ reopening plan. Leaders have said it gives families flexibility to decide what works best for them. Families can switch back to remote learning if in-person learning doesn’t work for them.
“Health and safety are the district’s highest priorities and accommodations for remote work have been granted to all teachers and staff who have documented medical conditions as defined by the CDC, and where possible, accommodations were also granted to staff who live with someone with a high-risk medical condition, or who face child care challenges,” CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said in a written statement.
However, the Sun-Times reports the district rejected the vast majority of teachers who had child care concerns — just 59 of 513 requests were approved.
‘Social Interaction Is Going To Be Extremely, Extremely Limited’
When they reopen, Chicago schools will look and feel a lot different.
Beyond masks and social distancing, instruction will likely be chaotic with some students physically in the classroom and others tuning in virtually, starting Feb. 1.
And some once-crowded classrooms will be largely empty. WBEZ found many families aren’t sending their kids back to school. At some schools, only one student is reportedly returning. Most of the schools expecting very few students are situated in majority Black and Latino neighborhoods that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, according to WBEZ.
By contrast, Prescott Elementary, Blundy’s school in affluent Lincoln Park, is expecting 61 percent of its students to return to the classroom, WBEZ reported.
Blundy said she anticipates 15 out of her 24 second graders will come back. But she won’t be there — even if it means she has to take an unpaid leave of absence.
The district has misled families about what reopening will actually look like, Blundy and other teachers and staffers who spoke under the condition of anonymity said. Schools don’t have “lavish production departments” to teach in-person and virtual students at the same time in an equitable way, Blundy said.
“They want their kids to be able to see other kids again, hang out with them at recess, be with them at lunch, but … I don’t think they understand the social interaction is going to be extremely, extremely limited,” she said.
Blundy said families should be skeptical of the district’s plan and ask teachers and administrators a lot of questions before deciding to take the leap and bring their kids back to school.
“How many air purifiers are there? Is there access to hot water? How big is the bathroom? I think those questions will lead them to understand that CPS is not prepared to bring back kids safely,” she said.
“I don’t want a single teacher to die, I don’t want a parent to die, I don’t want a grandparent to die. One death is too many.”
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