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As a former employee of CPS (Chicago Public Schools, for the uninitiated), I have been watching as the saga of the “reopening of schools” has been unfolding here. I still receive all the CPS emails, as well as those from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). The competing narratives about going back to work have been fascinating and I thought I’d do a little write-up here. Feel free to chime in if you’ve been following and have thoughts about how this is going down…
CPS planned on a hybrid re-opening scheme this fall but the CTU protested that it wasn’t safe so CPS went remote. Throughout that time, CPS provided updates about the HEPA filters they installed in the schools, cleaning procedures, the polling from the community who wanted to return to in-person teaching, etc. All this led to January’s phased re-opening (note: the CTU did not endorse this plan)- on January 4, 5,800 teachers were meant to return to prep for the January 11 start date for pre-kindergarten age children and only 49.7% came back. Some taught remotely, some taught even outside the building in 27°F weather (see the photo above). And the CTU said that teachers who did not want to return had the Union’s full support. CPS and the city said they would face “progressive discipline”- i.e., risk being fired.
Things have only escalated since then. While teachers have trickled back to avoid losing their jobs, the CTU has ramped up its rhetoric about the schools being unsafe for learning. What are their reasons? The Chicago Department of Public Health gave the all-clear to reopen. They cited a study of the city’s Catholic schools’ low rate of transmission. But here is the rub:
“But for teachers afraid of becoming severely ill or even dying from the virus, the study has a glaring problem: Mainly that local, non-public schools studied by the health department have little to nothing in common with Chicago’s public schools, they said…The study monitored around 20,000 students enrolled in in-person learning at local Catholic schools. The students included in the health department’s study are 44 percent white, 20 percent Black and 29 percent Hispanic. CPS schools are 11 percent white, 36 percent Black and 47 percent Hispanic.”
On January 24, 10,000 teachers for kindergarten- 8th grade were supposed to report to their classrooms. However, the CTU held a vote on Sunday in which 71% of members voted to continue teaching remotely. This comes in direct defiance of the district’s orders to return to work. The CTU, adding fuel to the fire, has stated that if the teachers are locked out of their classrooms (teachers would be at home but they would be locked out of their school Google email accounts and all access to CPS channels would be frozen), they will strike. CPS has said that this strike would be illegal because it breaks the terms of their bargaining agreement. February 1 should be the first day of school for 71,000 children who have pledged to return to in-person schooling and the situation is anything but stable for them.
In a series of bumbling Covid platitudes, Biden gave his take to the delight of the CTU: “It’s not so much about the idea of teachers aren’t going to work. The teachers I know, they want to work…They just want to work in a safe environment and…as safe as we can rationally make it. And we can do that…”
The outlook here is grim and without question, the children and their families are paying a heavy price for this. Many children will never be able to recuperate the time they have lost in the classrooms. It’s a disaster on every possible level. But I’ll leave it here for now.Published in