Chicago Public Schools returned to in-person learning this Wednesday following a heavily publicized work action in which teachers demanded a safer work environment amidst a record-setting COVID surge. However, teachers allege, CPS has failed to address any fundamental safety concerns prior to this reopening, endangering the lives of students, staff, and families.
According to Hala K., a 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts teacher, a temporary period of remote learning is necessary during this COVID surge.
“Our positivity rate is way higher than it was a year ago when we were closed. Right now we have like 11,000 daily cases and the ICUs are filling up. Schools are the number one spreader of COVID, like all the data shows. There’s no way this is safe — this is extremely transmissible.”
Despite the arrival of the highly infectious Omicron variant, the Lightfoot administration has fought against Chicago Teachers Union’s demand to test more students.
“The union wants an opt-out testing program,” said Hala. “That’s mandatory testing unless your parent or guardian opts you out. Right now, it’s just voluntary. My CTU delegate was telling me 0.052% of students in my school are getting tested weekly. And I was like ‘You mean 52 percent?’ But no, just .052% of our students are being tested on a weekly basis. And for my particular school, I only have 4% of the entire school population vaccinated.”
While some precautions are in place, rising cases and related staffing shortages have led to increasingly dangerous conditions in Chicago Public Schools.
“They still eat lunch in the cafeteria but they eat breakfast in their homeroom classes,” said Hala. “So I take them upstairs for class where, of course, they’re maskless and surrounded by their maskless peers. And there aren’t subs to cover classes when teachers get sick, so I have to bring extra students into my congested classroom.”
Situations like these have led CPS to institute sick policies which CTU alleges are only leading to an even greater risk of infection for students and their families.
“At the beginning of the school year, when one person tested in class, the whole class went into quarantine,” said elementary music teacher Kat Z. “The policy right now from Chicago Public Schools is that if you’re a teacher, you’re vaccinated, and you’re asymptomatic, and if you were exposed or even if you test positive, you still have to come in.”
Students who did attend Kat’s school last week were met with an unsafe learning environment.
“On Tuesday, I didn’t use my classroom because there was no heat. It was freezing. That had been the case since I got there Monday morning. At eight o’clock on Tuesday, they still hadn’t fixed. I had students on Monday almost in tears because they were so cold in the room.”
An anonymous CPS art teacher provided this example of the impact of CPS’ sick policies:
“They shortened the quarantine period to 10 days in November when we had a [COVID] spike. A lot of kids are coming back positive and either not knowing that they’re positive, or knowing and their parents send them back anyways. And then the other issue is that we can’t technically teach kids remotely until we get guidance from the District because the District has to have received a positive test. So why can’t we remotely teach a child if the parent is keeping them home because they’re scared of the safety of the school building with all of these cases?”
The increase in COVID cases over the holidays has already affected the ability of some schools to properly organize in-person learning.
“When we returned last Monday, my entire team was out except me — three of them had COVID,” said Hala. “So I was the only teacher on my team in the building Monday and Tuesday. 30% of our students were also missing. So our school was not only understaffed but like under-attended. Parents know what’s up. If their kids aren’t sick, they’re keeping them home so they won’t get sick.”
While Mayor Lightfoot accused CTU of lobbying for remote learning out of a secret desire to work from home indefinitely, remote learning imposes many challenges on teachers. As the CPS art teacher shared, CTU is not even asking for an extended period of remote learning.
“I didn’t like remote work. Teaching art remotely sucks like it’s horrible. So it’s not like I want remote learning to go on indefinitely. We want to be remote either until there is an agreement reached with the board that makes it safer for us to return to school or until the cases start to decline in the city. They’re saying that that’s going to be two weeks anyways, that’s what the scientists are saying, that we’ll be starting to be clear of this by the end of January. So if that’s the case, then what’s the problem with going remote for two weeks?”
CPS’ mishandling of the pandemic has also compounded existing issues which CTU has long lobbied the district to address. As Kat explains, the longstanding demand for smaller class sizes could have made this transition easier.
“[COVID] has made everything harder in some obvious ways. But once you think about the dynamics of the classroom, it’s even harder than you’d think. And what’s really frustrating is that they sent us back to being with 30 kids in a class. And that was too many before the pandemic. I think the number one thing that we could do to address the achievement gap, to address ‘behavior issues’, and transmission rates: all of those things could be addressed if we just had smaller classes. Like 20 kids in the class would be amazing. It would mean less students going into quarantine when one person tests positive. All of these things are connected.”
On Monday evening, the CTU bargaining team reached an agreement with the administration to have the teachers return to in-person teaching on Tuesday while having the membership vote on whether or not to accept the administration’s proposed safety agreement. But this quickly led to an untenable hybrid learning model, as the CPS art teacher explained.
“On Tuesday, we found out that 75% of our classes had a positive Covid case and needed to flip to remote. Tuesday evening, some teachers were still notifying parents that their students could not come in the next day. These positive cases were detected from in-school testing that took place a week ago. On Wednesday, students could come in if they sent in their vaccination card. Because of this, we are doing ‘hybrid’ instruction. This is not in-person learning. It is not remote learning. It’s the worst of the 3 options, which is that 1 teacher needs to be 2 people at once and teach kids in person and kids online simultaneously….In all of the debate, I don’t think it was made clear that this would be the outcome. It also seems unsafe that vaccinated kids can still come in since vaccinated kids can still get Covid. And as a specials teacher, I didn’t know until the kids walked in the door how many kids were going to be here in person vs online. This is impossible to plan for. I also found out a class was ‘flipped remote’ when I picked them up because I noticed that many kids were missing. Even the best teachers are not doing good teaching in a situation like this. And we are now asked to do more work of contact tracing and getting kids tested and vaccinated when we are already burnt out. The mayor was definitely fighting for something, but it wasn’t more quality education and clearly all of the educators knew that.”
Editors note: The following interviews were conducted over the weekend. Since then, CTU teachers were sent back to in-school teaching while they voted on whether or not to end the remote action. As of this writing, the membership voted to end the remote action by 55.5% to 44.5%. We stand in solidarity with the teachers, students, staff, and parents, and hope that the voices of these teachers can help inspire and mobilize support when the next struggle erupts.