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Chicago Teachers Say They Want To Return To Classrooms, But They Need Better COVID-19 Safety Measures

CTU members voted to return to remote learning, saying the COVID-19 surge makes in-person learning too risky. "I want to be with my students more than anything, but we need safety, we need better choices from our district," one teacher said.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates speaks to the press during a car caravan demonstration at Union Park on Jan. 5, 2022 in response to CPS canceling class Wednesday.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — As parents wonder whether or not their kids will have school on Thursday, Chicago Public School educators are speaking out about why they voted to switch to remote learning Tuesday night — saying the district needs to take some basic steps to make classrooms safer for everyone before they return.

Nearly three-quarters of Chicago Teachers Union members voted Tuesday to refuse to work in-person until Jan. 18, until a deal is reached on COVID-19 mitigations with the district or until the city’s positivity rate falls below 10 percent.

Chicago’s current positivity rate is 23.3 percent, up from 14.3 percent a week ago. The surge in cases has been driven by the Omicron variant, thought to be highly contagious but less severe than previous variants, according to preliminary research.

CPS canceled classes Wednesday, although school buildings remained open for essential services like meals and scheduled COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, district leaders said. CPS locked teachers out of online classrooms Wednesday morning.

Christine Dussault, a special education teacher at Ravenswood Elementary School and a district organizer with the teachers union, voted in support of working remotely.

“We don’t have what we need in the schools,” Dussault said. “We don’t have robust contract tracing. We don’t have robust testing. We don’t have coverage when people are not here, and we need those things.”

A group representing Chicago principals shared some staff absentee data Wednesday, according to Chalkbeat. Sixteen percent of employees on average were absent Monday in 225 schools where principals or assistant principals took part in the survey. One campus serving predominantly Black students had an 81 percent staff absentee rate, Chalkbeat reported.

Union leadership said early Wednesday that security guards were standing in for teachers at some schools due to a lack of substitute teachers, and no instruction was taking place due to staff shortages.

In recent weeks, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez and Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady have repeatedly said that schools are the safest place for students to be during the latest COVID-19 surge.

“We have spent over $100 million on to put mitigations in place, most CPS staff members are vaccinated, and we generally see little transmission in schools settings,” Lightfoot said in a statement earlier this week.

Chicago Public Schools spokespeople did not return a request for comment.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Owner Abby Phillips shows Mayor Lori Lightfoot Club Pilates, 2047 N. Clybourn Ave., in Lincoln Park as the city’s requirement for some businesses to start checking patrons’ COVID-19 vaccination status began on Jan. 3, 2022.

But Dussault said in her experience, that’s not true.

“Dr. Arwady keeps saying that schools are not areas of spread. Well, come into any cafeteria in CPS and watch unmasked kids not able to social distance because of the amount of them,” she said.

Dussault said she’s spending Wednesday grading papers and doing other work, and wants to return to the classroom as soon as possible.

“This is absolutely not a work stoppage or a strike,” she said. “I want to be with my students more than anything, but we need safety, we need better choices from our district.”

Not all teachers agree with the union’s decision, however.

Kathryn Rose is a temporarily assigned teacher at CPS, and is teaching full-time at a South Side high school she asked not to name. Rose voted Tuesday to stick with in-person learning, which she believes is safe given the protocols in place.

“I do feel like school is a safe environment. CPS provided me with KN95 masks. We have an air purifier. I am boosted and we’re taking every safety precaution that is recommended,” Rose said. “It’s been smooth and I think it’s kind of wild to be in school Monday and Tuesday and to have perfectly normal school days where students were excited to be back and then call for remote instruction.”

Rose said she noticed lower attendance than average in her classroom Monday and Tuesday, and students had mixed feelings about learning in-person or remotely. Rose said she believes closures should be addressed on a school-by-school basis, which is what district leaders have advocated.

“Some students said that they do feel safe, they’d be very disappointed if we went remote. Other students said that they do not feel safe at all,” Rose said. “Many of the students are vaccinated, some are not … I think that is one area that I’d like to see a lot more education. I think obviously with this new variant, it is essential that everyone gets vaccinated.”

Rose said she worked as a substitute teacher at several CPS schools during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, and is also a CPS parent.

“I’ve spent thousands of hours in CPS schools and it’s just not as bad as the CTU says, and it’s really unfortunate that they are dominating the discourse,” she said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Members and supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union demonstrated with a car caravan at Union Park on Jan. 5, 2022 in response to CPS canceling class Wednesday.

Nora Flanagan, a teacher at Northside College Prep in North Park who’s also a CPS parent and CTU delegate, said her kids could not access virtual learning Wednesday and she could not communicate with her sophomore students because she is locked out of her remote classroom.

She also said her sophomore students — many of whom tested positive for COVID-19 upon returning from winter break — and others also cannot access mental health services due to the lockout.

She said access to psychologists, social workers and counselors has been crucial for students amid the pandemic, and having those resources cut is hypocritical given the district’s talk over increasing support for social and emotional wellbeing.

“It’s BS they cut off resources to mental wellness,” Flanagan said.

Keyonna Payton, who teaches writing at Park Manor Elementary on the South Side, worked remotely Monday and Tuesday because of an outbreak forcing dozens to quarantine or isolate before the holiday break. She also believes in-person learning should be temporarily suspended.

“I wanted to make sure that our students are safe, and I wanted to make sure that our staff members are safe,” Payton said. “Not providing testing for all students puts them all in jeopardy, not having the right protocols in place and the right mitigations to ensure that nobody is walking into the building positive, and not knowing, puts us all at risk.”

Payton said she’d like to see every CPS student tested weekly before they return to the building, and wants the district to provide KN95 masks to students, not just teachers.

“Kids have a hard time keeping a mask on your face. If I had a dollar every time I told the kids ‘put your mask up,’ I would be not talking to you right now, I’d be on an island,” Payton said. “But at least if they had a more protective mask, it would help mitigate some of the spread. Because we’re told that those are one of the safest masks out here. So we definitely need them for students as well.”

Block Club Chicago’s Ariel Parrella-Aureli contributed.

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