Chicago Teachers Union, Socialist Alderpeople Fight Mayor For Safe Schools Carlos Ramirez-Rosa speaks at a press conference outside Brentano Math and Science Academy on Monday, Jan 4th | Photo by Will Bloom

Chicago Teachers Union, Socialist Alderpeople Fight Mayor For Safe Schools

Despite below freezing temperatures and an icy edict by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Mayor, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members stood in solidarity outside of Brentano Math and Science Academy. 

“You know in other cities we have mayors and we have school boards that are following the science,” 35th Ward Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa said. “They have clear metrics that the city has to meet in terms of positivity rate, in terms of community spread before the school can resume in person instruction. But here in the city of Chicago, that’s all been thrown out the window by Mayor Lightfoot and her handpicked Board of Education. They don’t go by any metrics or any data; they went by a date, and they picked a date that comes right after a period of time when people were gathering indoors and spreading coronavirus to each other during Christmas and New Years… It’s not safe, and that is why these teachers are putting things on the line… to make sure that our children can have safe learning conditions.” 

CPS CEO Dr. Janice Jackson put out a statement responding to a coalition of 33 Aldermen attempts to make the case that schools are safe, but many of the points dissolve under scrutiny. Although Jackson points to a Washington Post article on the growing amount of evidence that schools are not the location of virus transmission, the article points out repeatedly that there is still no consensus among epidemiologists and that when community spread is high, that will be reflected in transmission rates in schools. Additionally, the letter relies on the false equivalency that low transmission rates in schools around the world are an indication that schools are safe. The studies cited in her response refute her own point by pointing to safe community practices and low community spread predicating safe school conditions. Chicago does not meet the criteria her point rests on.

The most damning portion of Jackson’s letter is buried on page 7 and confirms Ald. Ramirez-Rosa’s assertion that a date was all that guided the decision. “The paid leave rights for childcare and other reasons granted under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act expired on December 31. CPS will continue its emergency paid sick leave for employees who are unable to work because they are self-quarantined per public health order, or by a medical provider. And to support teachers who have children in CPS, we are providing their children access to in-person instruction or Learning Hubs every day.”

CPS details their in-person reopening, calling for (among other measures) HEPA filters costing nearly $12,000,000. Claire Holt, CPS Social worker at Brentano, pointed out that there are still classrooms and offices with no ventilation.

“This plan still feels half baked, still feels incomplete, but that is the sad truth,” First Ward Alderman Daniel La Spata underscored. “When [CPS] wrote back to us saying if parents and students still need internet access, they should get online… what an ironic, sad statement to receive. To hear from them they still haven’t tested the filtration systems to make sure they actually work in our classrooms… how disappointing.”

Many teachers came forward speaking to the various ways the execution of CPS’ plan has fallen short of the goals detailed on their website and projected by their CEO. Ald Ramirez-Rosa pointed to the haphazard insistence of the Mayor to force teachers back into schools.

“The Latino Caucus met with Mayor Lightfoot some weeks ago. Even back then she was still pushing to reopen schools to in person instruction when it wasn’t safe. We said ‘Mayor, why do you want to do this when it isn’t safe?’ And she said ‘Number one, I’m hearing from employers that they want their employees back in the workplace. Number two, I’m hearing from downtown businesses that they don’t have any customers. And number three, because I’m worried about the kids.’ … It is very clear that this plan that the mayor is pushing is not about our children, it’s not about protecting the most vulnerable. It’s about serving the interests of a few at the expense of everyone else in our communities.”

CPS’ insistence to return to in person instruction hangs on a no strike clause in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. That same contract also includes protections for a safe workplace, yet teachers find themselves teaching outside to illustrate the failure of CPS to honor their commitment.

“Well, we have a contract and contracts are important in terms of protecting our rights” Kirstin Roberts, Teacher at Brentano said. “But, they also protect the rights of the employer and we have a no strike clause contract which does just that. And our theory at the CTU is that we have the right to refuse a direct order from our bosses to go inside of buildings to work because we have a provision in the contract around safe working conditions. But, of course the city is pushing back on us and saying that this is a refusal of direct orders and that’s insubordination. So, it’s a struggle.”

When the scope is widened to other civic programs such as Chicago Public Library, a similar narrative unfolds. At 77 locations open to the public, CPL posts a 13.1% Covid-19 positivity rate (over three times the rate in New York City). Other similarly populous cities have shut down their in person functioning in favor of safer practices, but Chicago’s leadership projects a false and literally fatal sense of exceptionalism. 

Looking to the city’s South, Mercy Hospital’s for-profit ownership finds itself in hot water over its plan to close its doors amid the pandemic. For months, CTU member Dennis Kosuth has organized with community members to keep Mercy open. Dennis’ efforts to draw attention to and correct bad faith efforts within Chicago’s profit-focused leadership circle’s back to the schools and the immediate crisis they face.

“I mean, the administration has this doctor from the Chicago Department of Health, who works for the city, that will come up to stand at a press conference with the Chicago Public Schools CEO, who also works for the city, to tell us how safe schools are.” Dennis said. “And they’ll make all broad claims about all these factors that are supposedly in place, while the teachers and staff who have re-entered classrooms have seen with their own eyes that they aren’t! Then CPS will go on about how this is about equity, about meeting the needs of Black and brown students struggling with online learning. But, when you look at the numbers, it just doesn’t match up.”