Chicago schools push forward with reopening plan despite teachers union, city council objections

Chicago schools push forward with reopening plan despite teachers union, city council objections

January 4, 2021

Schools weigh return to classrooms

School district Superintendents Dan Stepenosky and Art Javis weigh in on reopening schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.

As Chicago Public Schools expected to welcome the first phase of educators back Monday morning for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, many Chicago Teachers Union members vowed not to reenter their buildings, citing safety concerns and equity differences for Black and Brown students. 

This comes after at least 33 out of the total 50 aldermen sent a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson detailing how they are "deeply concerned" with Chicago Public Schools’ scheduled reopening this month, as the "current plan for students and staff to return to school buildings does not meet the district’s objective of increasing equity for students, and fails to adequately address a number of safety concerns identified by parents, students and staff in light of the ongoing pandemic."

Jackson responded with her own letter Sunday, arguing that safety protocols, including contact tracing, have already been set in place, and giving the option to return for in-person instruction will only benefit Black and Latino students who "have fallen behind" with remote learning, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Furthermore, Jackson argued that thousands of private and Catholic school students have had the option for months, "and providing this option is a matter of equity that will have ramifications for years to come."

"In-person learning is not the right choice for every student, but it must be an option for all," she said. 

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Citing the most recent CPS survey, the aldermen pointed out that less than a quarter of families chose in-person learning, and White families said they planned for their children to return to schools at twice the rate of Black and Latino families.

The teachers union further argued that White children in classrooms will therefore benefit, and the quality of virtual learning that most minority children will be attending will suffer as teachers struggle to balance between both groups of students.

"Pushing teachers and students into buildings will weaken our remote learning plans, not strengthen them," Lori Torres, a teacher in Logan Square and the mother of three children in the district, said at a press conference held via Zoom early Monday. "Teachers are expected to be two people, managing kids in front of them and managing kids on the screen. Aside from being safe, the decisions the district have made tell us that we still can’t trust that what they put into place have us in mind."

The press conference hosted by the teachers union was meant to give several educators at schools across Chicago the opportunity to explain why they would "exercise their contractual and legal rights to a safe workplace" by refusing to report to their buildings Monday. The union members detailed what they categorized as deficiencies and gaps in the CPS reopening plan.

"The plan that they put in place and the story that they’ve told to our families is that this decision comes with equity in mind," Torres said. "Equity is one of those things that provides proper staffing in our building. Equity is one of those things that supports our children where they are. Equity is not saying you have to go back into buildings that we know are not safe."

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"Our Black and Brown communities have been hit the hardest and they will be ravaged further if we allow for this reopening plan to occur," Linda Perales, a teacher at Corkery Elementary School, added. She explained that requiring teachers to wear a face mask all day during in-person instruction "will make it impossible to teach letter sounds" and that classrooms will be virtually empty to afford for social distancing, meaning that socialization will not be able to occur even if students return in-person.

According to CPS, at least 5,800 employees who work in preschool and special education cluster programs are scheduled to return to their schools on Monday. An additional 861 have been granted medical leaves and about 300 requests are still pending, the Times reported. Their students are scheduled to return for in-person instruction on Jan. 11.

On Jan. 25, thousands more are expected to return to their building to prepare for the return of students in kindergarten through eighth grade on Feb. 1. It was unclear how many union members scheduled to show up Monday instead opted to stay home. 

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In a video posted by Chicago Public Schools Monday, Erik Olson, the principal at Hamline Elementary School, explained that in-person instruction will look different at every school based on how families responded to CPS’ intent to return form. Most schools will follow a similar model that follows guidelines from public health officials to ensure a safe learning environment, he said.

Generally, students will be grouped into pods of no more than a maximum of 15 students who will enter through a specific door, fill out a daily health questionnaire and have their temperatures taken, and then go directly into a specific classroom, where they will be socially distanced.

Students will remain in the classroom for a vast majority of the day, though some schools have elected to have students leave for lunch and recess, while others will have pupils eat at their desks. They will use designated hallways and stairwells to maintain a separation between pods as they move throughout the building. Classrooms have been fitted with proper ventilation and air purifiers. Sanitation and hand-washing stations have been set up across schools.

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Nicole Spicer, principal at Bronzeville Classical Elementary, explained that students will follow a hybrid model, rotating between in-person and at-home learning on different days of the week. Students with special needs in cluster programs will have in-person instruction available to them five days a week.

The school reopening plan in Chicago has already been pushed back several times.

"The CTU has not identified any area where the district’s plan falls short of public health guidelines and the CTU’s last-minute tactics are deeply disrespectful to the 77,000 mostly Black and Latinx families who selected in-person learning," CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said in a statement to the Chicago Tribune Sunday. "It is the district’s expectation that teachers without an accommodation report to work tomorrow, just as principals, custodial staff, engineers and food service staff have throughout the entirety of the pandemic."

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