CHICAGO — About half of the Chicago Public Schools teachers who were supposed to return to classrooms Monday instead continued to work from home.
CPS expected 5,800 teachers to return. The move was part of the district’s plan to gradually reopen schools and bring back students, who have been learning remotely since March, when coronavirus closed schools.
But just 49.7 percent of teachers reported in Monday, CPS CEO Janice Jackson said Tuesday.
More are now vowing to keep working from home in protest of CPS’ reopening plan during the pandemic, according to the Chicago Teachers union.
“The resolve of educators continues to grow in the face of bullying, in the face of threats, because they understand the seriousness of this pandemic,” union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said during a Tuesday morning news conference. “They look at their timelines every day and they see the number of people who are dying.
“Again, the number of educators whose resolve was strengthened yesterday will turn into more of them teaching remotely from their homes today. That’s telling you all you need to know about the type of partnership that they are fighting to have at the negotiating table and inside the school buildings.”
On Monday morning, several teachers said they wouldn’t return to classrooms because they’re worried about coronavirus spreading at schools, endangering themselves, students and the schools’ families; they don’t think CPS’ plans will allow them to teach students; and they don’t think CPS has adequately cleaned and prepared to ensure students and staff will be safe at school.
Teachers who didn’t come in continued to teach remotely. Some educators at Brentano Elementary even worked outside, in 27-degree weather, for hours to drive home their concerns.
CPS CEO Janice Jackson, speaking during a district news conference Tuesday, said teachers who didn’t return were emailed a message to ensure the district’s expectations were “clear.” Those who continue to not show up will face progressive discipline — which could mean they’ll be fired.
Those teachers will be judged and disciplined on a case-by-case basis, Jackson said.
The CTU has said it will provide support to educators who want to keep working from home.
But some teachers said the risk of losing their job was not as important as the health risks posed by COVID-19.
“We’re afraid for our lives. We don’t want to lose our jobs,” Lori Torres, a teacher in Logan Square with three children in CPS, said during a Monday morning CTU news conference. “The fear of losing our jobs is real. Many of us are the sole income earners in our homes.
“But the threat of this virus is greater than that fear. And so, we’re staying out, and those of us who are in this second wave, we’re supporting those of you going in today or not.”
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.
The district’s reopening plan — which would see some students return to classes Jan. 11 — has been met with controversy. The CTU has pushed back, and 35 aldermen have signed a letter expressing concerns about reopening to Jackson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Lightfoot and Jackson defended the plan Tuesday, saying remote learning has created inequities, with Black and Latino students falling behind.
“We know that in-person learning is not the right option for every student, but it must be an option,” Jackson said.
Teachers have questioned if reopening schools can fix those issues.
Opponents of the reopening plan have noted Black and Latino communities have been hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19, and the majority of students at CPS are students of color. That means those communities could suffer even more if there are outbreaks at school or children bring the virus home from class, teachers have said.
And at the same time, the majority of Black and Latino families plan to keep their children home even when in-person learning resumes. An analysis by WBEZ found just 31 percent and 33.9 percent of Latino and Black families, respectively, plan to send their children back to classes.
Teachers have voiced concerns about that, as well, saying students will suffer if teachers have classrooms where some children are learning in person while others are learning online.
Jackson said there will be a learning curve as teachers adjust to hybrid classrooms — but she said teachers also had to adjust to completely remote learning in the spring.
“When we open up … the schools, which many people see as assets and resources in their community, people will come,” Jackson said. “… A year from now, there’s gonna be a reckoning around what happened to those students who have been sitting at home, not being properly served … .”
Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, has also defended the plan, saying there have not been widespread outbreaks at private schools that have been doing in-person learning for months.
During Tuesday’s CPS news conference, Dr. Marielle Fricchione, a medical director with the city’s health department, echoed Arwady. She said the department fully supports reopening schools and its officials did not see widespread COVID-19 transmission in schools in a study that tracked nearly 20,000 children.
“We encouraged teachers to ask as many questions as they need, but that we all have to acknowledge that walking out the door is not a zero-risk proposition in a pandemic, and things are getting better overall in our city with the introduction of the vaccine,” Fricchione said.
Jackson also noted that thousands of students in religious and private schools have been attending in-person classes without safety issues.
Jackson said the district respects the concerns of staff. But officials largely dismissed or ignored demands from teachers who are unhappy about the reopening plans.
For example, teachers have asked for increased testing and for the city to prioritize educators for COVID-19 vaccines. Jackson said that while she’s advocated for teachers to be prioritized in upcoming vaccination phases, she thinks vaccinations are “critical” but not a “requirement” to reopen.
At an unrelated news conference, Arwady said the city likely won’t move into the next phase of vaccination until at least February. That means teachers would be returning to work without being vaccinated even if they are prioritized in the next phase.
Jackson said the district does not need an agreement with teachers to reopen schools, but she thinks one is within reach, regardless. And she said CPS is “optimistic” more teachers will report in.
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