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

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

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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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