LOGAN SQUARE — Brentano educators set up desks outside the school Monday and worked there for hours in 27-degree weather in protest of the school district’s plan to reopen.
Clutching hand warmers and wearing multiple layers, teachers and staffers video-chatted with their students and huddled around a fire pit to keep warm outside the school, 2723 N. Fairfield Ave. Two worked with students in person, one using a plastic tent.
Fighting the cold, one Brentano staffer used a blanket to create a tent over herself and her makeshift desk. The staffer, who asked not to be named, said it was important to make a statement.
“I want to keep meeting with my students — they deserve the services. I think I can do that safely from home. I have been doing that safely from home. I have been servicing my students and meeting all of the requirements for my job” at home, she said. “That’s the way I feel we should continue until the virus calms down a little bit and we know what’s what with this new variant.”
Chicago Public Schools’ reopening plan has been controversial, with teachers fearful of COVID-19 and worried the district’s plans means they won’t be able to effectively teach all students.
Some teachers refused to return to in-person learning Monday. While some continued to work from home, some of the Brentano educators worked in the cold outside the school.
Throughout the day, neighbors dropped off snacks, hand warmers and logs for fire pits that kept the educators warm.
Tyler Dirks, a first-year science teacher at Brentano, said he showed up to support his colleagues — and to send the district a message. Studies have shown outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is much lower compared to indoor transmission.
“We’re willing to teach. We’re willing to be here. Our point of contention is going indoors,” Dirks said. “The studies that the district itself cites show that transmission inside of schools can and has occurred, and so if we have a system that’s working currently we’d like to stick with that until the vaccine.”
Pre-K and some special education teachers were expected back Monday, followed by their students Jan. 11. On Jan. 25, teachers for students in kindergarten through eighth grade are expected to return, with their students coming back Feb. 1.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other officials have said they want students back in school because remote learning has created an issue of equity. Students are falling behind, and Black and Latino students are struggling the most, Lightfoot has said.
But CPS’ reopening plan continues to face strong opposition.
“CPS wants to force pre-K and special education cluster teachers back into buildings on Monday, six days before Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s most recent stay at home order expires — and before health professionals can gauge any additional post-holiday risk of spread,” the Chicago Teachers Union said in a statement Sunday.
About 35 aldermen also sent a letter to Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson saying that they were “deeply concerned” about the district’s plan for reopening schools. They asked for detailed plans to be put into place to keep students and teachers safe.
Most of the 7,002 pre-K and special education cluster program teachers and staffers asked to return to school Monday agreed to do so, according to CPS data.
But nearly one-third — about 2,000 teachers and staffers — asked to be excused from in-person instruction. Not many of those requests were granted, CPS data shows.
Dirks said “it’s a statistical certainty” teachers, families and students will get sick it the district’s reopening plan sticks.
“We need our administration to have the courage to grapple with that reality and answer the question: How many cases is too many before you back down on this?” Dirks said.
About two-thirds of Brentano families don’t feel comfortable sending their children back to school, according to CPS data obtained by WBEZ and Brentano teachers.
Emily Thies, case manager and special education teacher at Brentano, said that number could be even higher because the survey the district sent to families was framed in such a way that it made parents feel like “they were making a choice they had to stick with.”
WBEZ found most of the schools expecting very few students are situated in majority Black and Latino neighborhoods that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
About half of Brentano’s student body come from low-income Hispanic families, according to CPS data.
“I just want CPS to show that it respects its staff and its students by making data-driven decisions about the reopening plan,” Thies said. “I also want them to stop using equity as an excuse to open buildings when it’s really not safe. That’s not what equity is.”
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