Skip to contents

Chicago’s Substitute Teachers Say CPS Is Not Doing Enough To Keep Them Safe, Informed During COVID-19 Surge

CPS substitute teachers said there's confusion and chaos as schools aren't properly cleaned, they aren't kept updated on COVID-19 safety steps and more. "Working for CPS means being in an abusive relationship."

A teacher works alongside a student in a preschool classroom on in February 2021.
Yana Kunichoff/Chalkbeat
  • Credibility:

CHICAGO — It’s not just full-time teachers who have had concerns about Chicago Public Schools in recent weeks — substitutes are frustrated with the district and fearful of teaching during the recent COVID-19 surge, too.

As Chicago public schools closed last week amid a standoff between the district and the teachers union, some substitute teachers were turned away without pay, some sat in empty classrooms and others attempted to teach the few students who did show up. The district and Chicago Teachers Union have now reached a deal, with classes resuming Wednesday.

But substitute teachers who spoke to Block Club highlighted concerns that go beyond the CTU and district disagreement. They said there’s confusion and chaos as schools aren’t properly cleaned, they aren’t kept updated on COVID-19 safety steps, they aren’t notified when they are exposed to the virus and classes of students have been warehoused in school gyms with one sub watching, making it difficult to enforce social distancing.

A substitute teacher who asked to remain anonymous said larger schools he’s subbed at, like William Howard Taft High School and Lane Tech, will have one substitute supervise “five to 10 classes in an auditorium or the gym,” he said.

“During COVID especially, shoving hundreds of kids in a room in tight quarters just because you don’t want to pay another sub is super, duper ridiculous,” he said.

He’s subbed at eight or nine schools and has never received information about COVID-19 safety protocols from principals or the district, he said.

“They just give me a packet, and they sometimes don’t even put the room number on it,” he said.

Last week, he sat alone in a classroom at a STEM school, “doing nothing,” he said — he couldn’t even get into the district’s system.

A CPS teacher at William Howard Taft High School said there were only 14 subs assigned to cover roughly 40 teachers who were absent at the start of last week, and estimated around 25 classes per day were “stuck in the auditorium watching Marvel movies.”

A CPS spokesperson said positions for subs are self-reported by school employees, and schools “often” do not know how many subs a school will need until “sometimes right before school is started.”

The district has more than 4,000 substitute teachers and has hired more than 455 since the start of the school year, using incentives and bonus pay to attract candidates, spokesman Evan Moore said.

“Chicago Public Schools strives to provide students across the district with all of the resources needed for a quality education that will help them lead successful and fulfilling lives,” Moore said in a statement. “CPS currently has a 2.7 percent teacher vacancy rate and had unprecedented success in hiring a diverse pool of candidates for FY22.”

Cleaning, Social Distancing Concerns

CPS’ contact tracing has “alerted all employees” when they’ve been in close contact with an employee who tested positive for COVID-19, a CPS spokesperson said.

But substitutes said they’ve had concerns about all kinds of issues related to the pandemic, with some saying there’s not enough cleaning, social distancing or testing.

Dana Smith, a CPS cadre and substitute teacher delegate for CTU, works with immunocompromised kids in special education classes. When it comes to cleaning classrooms, the district offered “very dry” sanitation wipes that “reeked of alcohol” and “make the kids nauseated,” Smith said. Beyond that, subs have had to buy cleaning supplies and clean on their own, she said.

And Smith said she’s also seen a lack of adequate testing and social distancing in schools, despite Chicago’s surge in cases.

Last year, “if you had a sick kid, you were able to send them home right away. That’s not happening anymore,” Smith said. “We had consistent PCR testing once a week. That’s not happening at many schools. I know of at least two CPS teachers who said the PCR testing employees never showed up on Monday or Tuesday [last week].”

The cafeteria is one of the most most concerning places on CPS campuses, Smith said.

“Most do not have windows and do not have ventilation. Kids sit shoulder to shoulder, masks off, for about 20 minutes at a time,” she said. “They’re not separated. Classes and grades are mixed up together in the lunchroom. It’s not safe in there.”

Smith said she is worried she could catch COVID-19 in a school, but “my No. 1 concern is not for myself — it is for my kids.”

“The fact that I could accidentally give them something that could put them in the hospital — that is terrifying,” she said.

Not only do subs feel unprotected from the virus, they also feel like the district left them in the dark and on their own, Smith said. They are “completely left out of the conversation about kids who are exposed,” and it’s hard to have authority as a substitute to tell school leaders to get sick kids out of a classroom, she said.

“I honestly don’t have words for the amount of stress and anxiety that I personally go through on a daily basis. I would say I have a lot of trauma from the anxiety alone,” Smith said.

Mawuli Grant Agbese, who has been substitute teaching classes with CPS for five years, said the job was “pretty straightforward” before COVID-19. Now, “it’s just very anxiety-inducing.”

“Now when you’re subbing and the teacher is out, you wonder, ‘Did this teacher have COVID? Was COVID in this room? Was the room properly sanitized?’” he said. 

A substitute assigned last week to a high school, who asked to remain anonymous, said kids are “play fighting” and engaging in “typical young high schooler behavior” despite the virus.

“It makes it frustrating to enforce mask rules,” she said.

When she was subbing longterm for a teacher on maternity leave last year, the district failed to notify her a student in her class was in quarantine, she said.

“I just thought they were absent,” she said. “Was anyone going to tell me? Doesn’t that make me and everybody else in this classroom also have close contact, by extension?”

‘That’s The Income We Should Just Be Paid Anyway’

Another issue complicating the matter: pay. Some subs need the bonuses that are being offered to CPS as the nation faces a shortage of teachers. One said she didn’t want to be seen as a “scab” for working last week while full-time teachers were it an impasse with the district, but she needed to pay her bills.

It got even more complicated for one substitute teacher, who said she wasn’t allowed to swipe in at one school last week — and was then worried she would not get paid.

A CPS spokesperson said substitutes who showed up to work and swiped in would be paid, as would subs who were turned away after signing up for assignments before CTU stopped in-person learning last week.

A shortage of substitute teachers began causing problems for Illinois school districts in the fall, forcing some schools to close early for Thanksgiving break and in the time since then. 

To try to fill the thousands of classrooms without teachers assigned to them, CPS announced a $1,000 incentive for subs to come into schools, in addition to previously announced bonuses.

Smith said it’s hard for subs to say no to the $1,000 incentive even with the issues with CPS. Subs don’t have paid time off or sick days.

“Some of us do have health care, but it’s expensive,” Smith said. “It makes me laugh that we were offered this extra $1,000 income because that’s the income we should just be paid anyway.

“… Working for CPS means being in an abusive relationship that you know is never going to get better.” 

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers.

Subscribe to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation. 

Thanks for subscribing to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods. Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation.

Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: