CHICAGO — On Monday, about 6,000 Chicago Public Schools kids are expected to reenter classrooms for the first time since March, with another 70,000 slated to return Feb. 1.
While district officials say they are confident schools are safe for students and staff amid the ongoing pandemic, they’re also preparing for the possibility that kids may show up with COVID-19 symptoms.
All schools are being equipped with “sick rooms” or “care rooms” to quarantine ill children, CPS CEO Janice Jackson said Friday. In most schools, a classroom has been cleared out and children exhibiting symptoms of illness throughout the day can wait there until they’re picked up. Some schools, however, will have “hospital grade” plastic structures “should a school become overwhelmed,” she said.
The temporary structures were blasted by people on social media this week after the union’s tweet. People said the structure looked like a “plastic cage” and worried kids would be bullied for feeling sick.
Jackson and Dr. Marielle Fricchione of the Chicago Department of Public Health attempted to ease these concerns during a Friday news conference. Fricchione said the rooms shared in social media posts are a “supplemental measure” in 22 schools and may not be used.
“The intent…was that instead of having children socially distanced in a large auditorium, which you could not clean and disinfect afterwards, that these cubes were the better options,” she said. “…Again, this is just in case the care rooms were not enough volume for the students who need to wait.”
Martin Ritter, a political organizer for the CTU, said Friday’s news conference was the first he learned the plastic structures would be used as a “last resort.” This information wasn’t shared with teachers either, he said.
“Perhaps they could have explained that in the last six months of planning,” he said. “If they’re expecting overflow, that’s quite troubling.”
Teachers at Alexander Graham Bell School in North Center, where the photo was taken, were “concerned about not only the need for it, but the obvious appearance of it is quite traumatic for a child to go through that,” Ritter said.
Jackson said the care rooms were implemented as a “best practice” after studying how other districts across the country are handling in-person pandemic learning.
CPS officials did not immediately respond to questions about who will staff the sick rooms.
Officials hope other mitigation efforts will reduce the need for the rooms. Before entering the school building each day, all students and staff must complete a “symptom and risk screener” online and take a temperature check, according to reopening guidelines provided by the district.
“We did have a handful of schools whose capacity is such that they needed an additional layer of support should they see people that are symptomatic that need to wait either to be picked up by a parent or wait for a test” result, Jackson said of the plastic structures. “We feel confident that the systems in place work.”
Parents or guardians are expected to pick up students within one hour of being notified their child is sick.
Beyond the plastic “care pods,” Ritter said he or other union officials had not seen any photos of the classrooms that had been converted to care rooms and have been denied tours of schools despite making requests to do so.
“They have not shown us what the care rooms look like,” he said. “I think it would be in the best interest of good faith bargaining if they shared pictures or perhaps a video tour of what some of these care rooms look like.”
Lightfoot said Friday talks with the union remain ongoing and said teachers who fail to show up Monday could face discipline.
“What we want is a substantive, collaborative relation and resolution of this issue,” she said. “CPS has done a lot to try to accommodate medical concerns of teachers, but it’s our hope and expectation that those teachers who are expected to be back and after having gone through that process, will come. If not, there is a process to address those issues.”
Even though half of the city’s teachers stayed home Monday rather than report to their schools, Jackson said the number of teachers showing up increased throughout the week and the district is confident school’s will be adequately staffed.
“I feel confident that our teachers will be here,” said Jackson, but she said educators who fail to return to in-person teaching when they are required to would be considered absent without leave and not be paid.
Following the press conference, CPS issued a statement saying the majority of schools have not erected the extra “care pods,” which are meant as a supplement. The statement went on to say the district is prepared for kids and teachers to return.
“Schools have been preparing to welcome students back for months and every possible measure has been taken to ensure that schools are safe to welcome students and staff,” the statement said.
CPS safety protocols are sure to be brought up when a city council committee convenes Monday a few hours after students file into schools. Chairman of the Committee on Education, Ald. Michael Scott (24th) announced the hearing after 37 aldermen— including several close allies of Lightfoot — signed on to a letter expressing concerns about the district’s reopening plans.
Although the hearing will allow aldermen to pose questions and vent frustrations about the reopening, the City Council has no role in setting district policy.
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