CPS CEO Commits to School Specific COVID-19 Closing Metrics after CTU Threatens Walk-Out

In the face of a potential walkout by Chicago Teachers Union members, Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said he is committed to putting in place COVID-19 cases metrics for closing schools and classrooms.

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Martinez said a “tactical” approach that recognizes the varied way the pandemic has played out in various communities is a better approach than a wholesale move to remote learning.

Chicago students were back in their classrooms Monday for the first time in 2022 following a two-week winter break for the holidays, but their return may be short lived, as Chicago Teachers Union members are set to vote Tuesday on whether to walk out, citing a lack of protection from rising COVID-19 cases.

“I’ve been in active communications with the senior leadership of CTU, my team has been in active communications. I am convinced we can come up with a solution before we get to that point (of a walkout),” Martinez said. “And the solution should really be at a school level. I think we can develop metrics, where we can be nimble at a school that is struggling with COVID cases, where we have a lot of staff under quarantine. Yes, we will have to transition classrooms, maybe the entire school, to remote as we manage through that. And then we add resources. We add more COVID testing, we add vaccination events at those schools, while other schools will be in much better place. And I just feel that in a district our size that is the best way to manage.”

Martinez said he believes the metrics can be finalized this week.

Members of the Chicago City Council, like 6th Ward Ald. Roderick Sawyer said in a statement that he knows in-school learning is best, but only if it’s done safely and responsibly and right now he’s not certain that’s happening.

“On-site testing and optional vaccination, high-quality masks, improved ventilation, and evidence-based metrics and procedures to handle outbreaks in schools are of the utmost importance, and at this time, I am not convinced that these mitigations have been properly implemented,” Sawyer said.

Parent J.P. Paulus sent his two children, a fifth grader and a junior, to their respective South Side schools Monday with some sense of security, given that they’re vaccinated, but said he’d rather they temporarily have the option to learn online.

“At least for the next two weeks, because that way everybody’s come home from the holidays, from vacations, from being at the movies. They can know for sure then if they have COVID and it will die down and from there we can see where kids stand, and also our city in general,” Paulus said.

Paulus said it’s wrong for CPS to ignore the wishes of parents who want their kids to be able to learn from home.

Ryan Griffin’s the parent of two fully vaccinated CPS students, ages 5 and 7, and is making a plea to Chicago teachers to recognize the importance of in-school learning, and not take that away.

“Fundamentally, who runs the district right now? And I think the teachers’ union is arguing that they have the right and ability to shut down a district that serves 330,000 students. It’s perplexing to us as parents that we turn to public health officials for information about the pandemic. I don’t ask the teachers what they think about public health guidance, we turn to experts in that space,” Griffin said. “And in this case the experts are saying the priority is in-person learning, it’s safe.”

Griffin said he is thankful that Martinez is refusing to move wholesale to online learning.

Chicago’s top doctor, Dr. Allison Arwady, is among medical professionals who has said students are likely more protected in the classroom where masks are required than at play dates and out and about in general.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a statement Monday said CPS has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on mitigations, and she is relying on science – data showing transmission in schools is low.

“We cannot ignore the sad lessons of a whole district resorting to remote learning: significant learning loss, particularly among students of color; severe hardship on families who had to work and could not home school students; mental health trauma arising from isolation; absence of extracurricular activities, and tens of thousands of students daily who failed to participate in remote learning,” Lightfoot said. “We cannot forget that shifting fully to remote learning is not a panacea and comes with significant harm to students and their families. The best thing that we can do for our students, staff and all our partners at CPS is to get vaccinated. Keeping kids safely in school where they can learn and thrive is what we should all be focused on.”

Among CTU’s asks prior to returning to class Monday was requiring negative COVID-19 tests from all students and staff.

Before the break, CPS distributed 150,000 tests to schools in hard-hit communities.

In a statement, the district Monday said roughly 40,000 were returned, and of those, half came back “inconclusive.”

Paulus’ kids’ tests were among them. He says his family followed the instructions. He suspects the issue is a result of how far the tests had to travel – his were mailed to South Carolina. He said given that after 48 hours, the samples are no longer acceptable.

Martinez says he is also frustrated by the outcome of the district’s attempt to test students before school resumed. He said the district was trying to ensure access, but it was difficult to pull off the initiative with schools closed.

Martinez said the vendor’s working to resolve those issues, and in-school testing is expanding this week.

“I am committed to finding ways to expand testing,” Martinez said. “It’s been very frustrating for me just how difficult it is to increase capacity here.”

Martinez also says 200,000 K-N95 masks are on the way, the majority of which will get to schools by Wednesday.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky


Chicago teachers voting Tuesday whether to defy CPS orders to teach in-person

By Sarah Karp

Tuesday, Jan. 4, 6 a.m. CT

Chicago teachers voting Tuesday whether to defy CPS orders to teach in-person

A high-stakes showdown between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools is coming to a head, with the union demanding a temporary switch to remote learning for all schools starting Wednesday and the school district and the mayor standing firm on in-person learning.

The union has scheduled a Tuesday vote for its more than 25,000 members on whether to defy orders from the school district to work in person. The union wants additional safety measures added, including testing and more access to vaccines. Until those are in place, they want staff to work remotely.

After teachers vote on Tuesday, the union’s elected House of Delegates will weigh in on the mass action, which could begin as early as Wednesday.

At a CTU virtual town hall Sunday evening, 80% of the 8,000 members said they didn’t want to work in-person under current conditions, according to CTU members present. CPS classes resumed Monday after a two-week break amid the largest COVID-19 surge yet.

CPS teachers can only work remotely if sanctioned by the school district. CPS could lock teachers out of their remote classrooms and prevent them from teaching. This would effectively shut down the school district.

On Monday, both the school district CEO and Mayor Lori Lightfoot made clear they want students learning in person.

“What we have learned from this pandemic is that schools are the safest place for students to be: we have spent over $100 million to put mitigations in place, most CPS staff members are vaccinated, and we generally see little transmission in school settings,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “Keeping kids safely in school where they can learn and thrive is what we should all be focused on.”

Lightfoot also stressed the academic and emotional damage impact of remote learning. She dismissed the “saber-rattling by teachers union leadership”

CPS officials also doubled down on their support for in-person learning, saying “districtwide, unwarranted and preemptive mass school closures could actually fuel community [COVID-19] spread.” They said they’ve been meeting with the union and “reiterated that a case-by-case, school-by-school approach is the best way to approach COVID-19 concerns in schools.”

CPS and city officials insist schools are safe for in-person learning. In an email to families on Sunday, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said that “research has shown that with the extraordinary protections we’ve put in place, school is one of the safest places your children can be during the pandemic.”

CPS says its protections include masking, contact tracing, testing, cleaning, air purifiers and vaccination opportunities.

Martinez last week noted that neither New York nor Los Angeles are moving to remote learning temporarily. However, several smaller city districts, including Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Newark, have delayed reopening after winter break or have temporarily switched to virtual learning.

Parents weigh in

At dismissal Monday, parents and students had mixed views on the debate over in-person or remote learning.

At Drake Elementary in Bronzeville, Shavonna Mason said she felt safe sending her five-year-old to school. The school’s safety measures, she said, make her “feel a lot [more] secure as a parent, and I’m a single parent. I still have to go to work, the world still goes on. And of course, schools are necessary, right?”

But parent Lisa Wilson was second-guessing sending her three children to class.

“They should have kept doing e-learning,” Wilson said, even though she described overseeing remote learning as really hard. She said CPS and Drake are “doing their best, but I don’t think the best is good enough.”

Drake families received COVID-19 tests from the school district to administer over winter break. CPS said it distributed 150,000 home kits before the holiday.

The results for Mason’s results came back negative, while Wilson said she never got her children’s results. She was among thousands of CPS parents who faced a frustrating outcome, with many getting an email saying the tests could not be processed “due to weather and holiday related shipping issues.”

CPS’ COVID tracker on Monday showed that of 35,831 completed tests, 24,989 had invalid results and 18% were positive. On Monday, CPS said it was seeking “answers” on why more than half the tests couldn’t be validated and said it was increasing on-site testing for impacted students this week.

At Park Manor Elementary on the South Side Monday morning, teachers said they volunteered their time over winter break to help families complete the tests, only to find that most had ended up spoiled. Many Park Manor staff refused to work in person on Monday, as they did before break when there was a spike in cases at the school. They say the school district has told them they must be in person and threatened to withhold pay and to discipline them.

In addition to major processing problems with the test kits, more than 100,000 of the 150,000 available tests were never submitted. Some could still be at schools. CPS says it will support families that want to use the remaining home kits. About 300 of the 498 district-run schools received tests.

CTU safety demands

The Chicago Teachers Union has long had a list of safety demands for the school district. Now leaders are saying they must take action to force CPS’ hand.

“Here we are, a year later in the cold in January, performing another remote action, because [CPS] can’t get it right,” CPS Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said on Monday. She said CPS only responds when the union draws a “line in the snow.”

In a proposal submitted to CPS Thursday, the CTU demanded that the school district require students and staff to present a negative COVID-19 test before attending in-person classes on Monday. Without that, the union was proposing a switch to remote learning for two weeks. However, there was no further action on that proposal by either side.

The union also wants high-quality masks for all students and staff, and for individual schools to switch to all remote learning if 20% of staff are in isolation or quarantine. The union is particularly worried about schools being short of adults to safely operate because many staff may be out sick.

In a bargaining update on Thursday, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said the district has told the union they can’t or won’t meet these demands.

But Martinez and the city’s top public health official say they’re confident schools can remain open safely. Martinez said CPS has “thoroughly” cleaned all the schools, doubled the staff available to deal with the increase in cases, is buying 2 million more masks and will provide home test kits to students. CPS is also instructing parents to keep sick students home.

But CPS didn’t require students to test negative for COVID-19 before returning to school, as have other urban districts, like Los Angeles and Washington D.C., and some local private schools.

Martinez sent several letters to parents during break, promising to take additional actions to keep students safe as cases rise. He also identified what the school district considers in-school transmission — three cases in one class. This is something CPS hadn’t done previously.

When that happens, he said the school district is committed to providing testing, making vaccines accessible, enhancing cleaning and ensuring substitutes are available.

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady added that children are not the driver of the most recent COVID-19 surge, and that schools are safe when proper mitigations are in place.

Reporter Anna Savchenko contributed reporting to this story. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @annasavchenkoo.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.


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