Carnegie Elementary is a Chicago Public School (CPS) located in the Woodlawn neighborhood on the city’s South Side. SEIU 73 member and Special Education Classroom Assistant (SECA) jonL Bush tragically died from COVID on Nov. 26, 2021, at the age of 44, in the midst of multiple positive COVID cases being reported at his school. Carnegie Elementary teachers and staff took action by remaining at home and working remotely for two days to fight for their demands for additional custodial staff, COVID testing, vaccination outreach, and improved air purification and filtration. Chicago Public Schools officials responded to the pressure and eventually gave in to many of the educators’ demands.
Dennis Kosuth, a CTU school nurse and member of CDSA and the Labor Branch Steering Committee, interviewed Faith Mitchell, a CTU member and 2nd grade teacher at Carnegie, to talk about her experience with this public health crisis and what led her and members of her school to take action. CTU educators were locked out from teaching remotely from January 5th to the 10th, as safety concerns rapidly escalated in CPS. This conversation took place prior to this collective work action, but demonstrates the conditions school communities have been existing under. Thank you to Ryan Veseling for transcription.
Dennis: Can you start with what happened that led to the situation that your school was in?
Faith: At the school where I currently teach, we just had a surge in the number of classrooms that had to flip to remote. Probably the week prior to Thanksgiving, we had about five classes that had gone remote and prior to that, multiple classes. Right before Thanksgiving, they did the COVID testing on that Monday because schools would be closed on Wednesday, which was the typical day that they would do COVID testing. There were a number of classes that had gone remote, and then a colleague of mine passed and his death was COVID-related. He actually worked with students who were part of one of the pods that had to be flipped to remote. And the protocol with CPS is that even if you’re vaccinated, you are still required to come in, unless you have tested positive.
Our colleague got the test done on Monday, it didn’t seem like he was feeling well on that Tuesday, and got his results on that Wednesday, which is when he found out that he was actually positive. And then he passed that Friday. So of course that put a little fear and panic into a number of the staff members. It’s just one of those situations where this is somebody that wasn’t ill to our knowledge, and somebody who had been at that school for quite some time. It was just so sudden and so abrupt. And a lot of people came back and were really concerned because we’re definitely looking for some directives from our Chicago Public School leadership, and there was just nothing. Our own school administration, principal, assistant principal, so on and so forth, I think that they did what they could on their end including reaching out to the Network [a CPS administrative level above schools and below the district; there are seventeen Networks in the district] to share concerns about the number of classrooms going remote as well as the death of a colleague. And at that point, we weren’t aware of the fact that he had passed, but a lot of people put some pieces of the puzzle together and assumed that it was a possibility.
So there were a number of staff members who, when we returned to school on Monday, were ready to just walk out or do whatever we needed to do to make it clear that we deserve a little bit more than to just not have anybody say anything about what was going on.
I normally don’t share a lot of things with regard to work unless it’s related to the Union and people are truly aware of what’s going on, but I just got on social media and shared. This is a personal story and that this was really close to home, and I feel like people have become desensitized hearing about death or even if people are catching COVID. But for me, it’s like putting a face to the situation. I was hoping to just get more of a response or reaction. And so by chance, I happened to be Facebook friends with Stacy Davis Gates [CTU Vice President], who saw my post and immediately reached out to find out what it was that the Union could do to support the staff. Because, like I said, at that point, there was nothing.
Dennis: Nothing from the Network? What a shame.
Faith: Right. And so, I reached out to our Union delegate at the school, who was also teaching remotely and I just wanted to know what were the next steps or what would he suggest that we do. And he reached out to the Union to just get some directives from them.
Dennis: His classes were already flipped?
Faith: Right, exactly. Teaching in the building, but the kids are at home. So the Union reached out to ask what was the status of our safety committee and what had we done at this point to monitor what was going on. And we hadn’t been meeting consistently simply because there was just so much inconsistency with people being in the building and out of the building.
Dennis: Yeah, and it’s overwhelming. I think it’s similar in my schools that the safety committee kind of feel like it’s almost become accepted that this is just the rhythm of things, of classes being flipped and of positive cases, that it almost goes into the background. Like even in my child’s school, they’re an eighth grader, and I get emails every day about positive cases, and I don’t even read them anymore because we’ve become so desensitized to it. But I really appreciate what you’re saying about how we have to stop. We have to stop and think about the impact this is having on our coworkers and our families and the people that we work alongside and care about.
Faith: Absolutely, and then it is hard for you to even really pay attention to it because you’re not being given any information on what classroom it is or who it is.
Dennis: Yeah, it’s a form email and it doesn’t even tell you anything
Faith: Right. And then you walk into the building and you notice the entire class is gone. You’re like, “Oh, okay, that’s who it was”
Dennis: That happened to me. I went to one classroom, a kindergarten classroom, because I have a diabetic student who I give insulin to every day that I’m there, and the class was dark. I asked them, “Hey, what happened? How come I wasn’t notified? I’m in this classroom for hours at a time providing health care to this child.” And they’re like, “Oh, we didn’t know your schedule.” The deficits of the contact tracing in this district are profound.
Faith: Absolutely. So through conversation with the Union and sitting with the safety committee, who also met with the administration, there were a couple of meetings that took place. One of the meetings was the one that took place where they had some communication between the administration. I wasn’t there for it, but it was communicated to me that our principal was doing all that she could to possibly ask the Network to consider the idea of at least a good portion of the building going remote simply because the numbers were increasing. And we also learned that there was cleaning equipment that she had put in a request for and for repairs, and they were very slow to respond. And just having conversation with the actual custodial staff who share that it’s just very limited in what they can do because even though we have a building that services, I think at a maximum capacity of 600 people, we’ve got two people to the entire building and they come in in shifts.
Dennis: That’s not enough. The care room [the room where students who have COVID symptoms are sent while they await pick up from their guardians] at one of my schools – this is three weeks into it – the person who is assigned to work the care room said that they had not had their room cleaned once. And they raised it to the admin, and they say, “Oh, okay, we’ll get on top of it,” but it’s just like you don’t have enough hands on deck. You can’t just, you know, create something out of nothing. So that’s an important point you’re making about the lack of staffing.
Faith: Right. And it just falls, as usual, on the lap of the teachers, even in some cases, the students. The other issue that staff are definitely concerned about was that CPS definitely tried to comfort the public by saying that we were able to socially distance, but that wasn’t true because, for example, ideally a class size of 23 would be perfect, but in the face of COVID, it wasn’t, because for me, the most that I could do was two feet of social distancing.
Dennis: Yeah, it’s impossible.
Faith: And that was a number of classrooms that pretty much were in that position. So it’s that we know that this is airborne and we know that when people are in close proximity, it just makes it that much easier to pass, you know? And that was obviously what was happening at our school, because like I said, prior to us actually flipping to remote, those of us that went without approval, the classroom across from me had gone remote, the classroom next door to me had gone remote —
Dennis: It’s like dominoes falling on both sides.
Faith: It skipped my class, the class next door, and then hit the classroom right next to them. And the crazy thing about the classes that it was hitting were actually smaller class sizes, as well as those students were actually being tested. Whereas a person like myself, even though I have 23 students, only three of them were being tested. Their parents weren’t in agreement about getting their kids tested, so it was like, “Well, how do I even know I’m walking into a room that’s safe?”
Dennis: Right, because there’s no testing. And it seemed like if CPS wanted to make something happen with testing, they could totally do it. I mean, as a nurse, they make immunizations and physicals to be done for kindergarten and preschool. And so you have to have 90 percent or the admin gets really dinged on that by the Network. But if they wanted to make this testing mandatory or close to mandatory, get as many people as possible, they could have made it happen. But it seems like they didn’t make it.
Faith: Absolutely. And that was actually one of the things that the Union talked about was that when they were trying to get CPS to come to the table for just revisiting the agreement, they wanted to ask if we could switch it from having to opt out versus opting in. And CPS wouldn’t even address it.
Dennis: And it makes you wonder, what is their reasoning behind that? Did they just think that there’s no way that the company they had partnered with would be able to handle the capacity? I just can’t figure out what their logic on that issue is.
Faith: Exactly. And so for me, knowing that a classroom’s in such close proximity to one that went remote and then to have the death of a colleague, who would literally sit like 20, 30 feet away from my classroom because sometimes he would help to support the students and staff. I’m a person who has preexisting conditions, so even though I’m vaccinated, I feel like I’m just a sitting duck.
Dennis: Absolutely. You guys hear about this news coming back and you have the meetings with the safety committee with the admin. What were the next steps as far as staff feeling that they weren’t being listened to? What did you all do next and how did that work?
Faith: So when we spoke with the Union, one of the things that they thought would be really important to bring attention to what was going on was to hold a press conference. We initially had thought about doing it that Friday after we returned, but it was a day or so before our colleague’s funeral, and we just wanted to have the attention focused on him. And there were a number of staff members that were actually supporting the family with arrangements, and so we held back on that. And then the family had that funeral that Saturday, and three more classes got flipped. So now, we’re up to eight. At that point, we came in on that Monday, and we agreed to do the press conference and our colleague’s mother, although she’s from Arkansas – she was supposed to leave to go home – but when she realized that there was a strong possibility that he had contracted COVID from the school, she agreed to come and speak at the press conference because she just felt like she didn’t want her son’s death to be in vain. Because he had dedicated and committed so much. And it just felt like, you know, CPS just didn’t even want to touch the issue.
Dennis: What a shame. Her words were so powerful at that press conference. I just couldn’t imagine as a parent having to bury your own child. And then for something that could have been avoided. Our society has failed so many people, especially African-Americans. I also worked part time at a hospital on the South Side and they were cutting back on health care in Washington Park during a pandemic that was disproportionately affecting African-Americans. And it was just stunning to me that this is the city we live in that has so many resources and yet doesn’t prioritize the health of a big section of our population. It’s an outrage.
Faith :Absolutely. I think the straw that broke the camel’s back for many staff members was that we had this press conference just sharing like what’s actually happening in the building. And to get the mayor’s response that everything’s fine, everything was unfounded in regards to the staff member that passed, and to not even give any condolences to his mom.
Dennis: So insensitive.
Faith: Absolutely. I think for many of us it hit home, because we are explaining to you what is happening in this building and you still don’t believe us.
Dennis: Like it’s some game that we’re playing, like this is a game and a joke. I had a similar response a year ago when we were also fighting the reopening without a plan. My uncle passed in mid-January 2021. Seventy three years old. He had just retired eight years beforehand, and he was otherwise healthy. He just caught COVID at this place he was living and was gone within a couple weeks. I told my manager about my concerns about coming back in person, and she was like, “You’re just fooling around. You’re just failing the screener on purpose because you think this is a game.” I think that the people who are the decision makers are just not listening. I don’t know what their problem is, but they’re not listening to what’s happening.
Faith: Right. And the unfortunate thing is, and this is just my personal perspective, I do feel like the leadership is just very arrogant. They won’t even consider bringing this to the table to even just work on things like logistics, because look at this nightmare that just took place. I think CPS should be embarrassed at how they handled COVID testing.
Dennis: That’s right. That’s right. The boxes piled up beside those FedEx things, and now a bunch of them are not even able to be used. They say they can’t depend on the results from those tests. I mean, the planning around coming back from break is an outrage.
Faith: Even when I got wind of the fact that we were supposed to be getting these kits, my thoughts were, “how are they managing the collection of this?” And the fact that we were already tested in the schools, I’m like, “Well, why don’t we just make sure that the testing is available that first day returning?” Just something that would be within more reason because, for example, looking at a school like Park Manor in the fact that none of their students came back that last day before winter break, or the number of schools that never even got tests, or the students that never came back to get the test. And you only gave it out to what, maybe a third of the population? So what was the purpose?
Dennis: Yeah. It’s like they’re going through the motions, but they don’t really hear or understand what’s happening or put the resources in. That’s the thing that just blows me away is this society spent billions of dollars on vaccines. There’s been money flooded into CPS and into the city to assist with COVID relief. And yet, where are these resources going? They don’t seem to be appearing in the places that they’re needed. So you guys get this insulting response to the mayor. So what did you all do next? What was your response? What was the response of your coworkers when you went in and after that?
Faith: And so at that point, a lot of people brought back to the table the idea of just doing a sick-out, and because I was on the one that originally happened when my colleague first passed, there were a number of people who were on the fence about it because the reality is people don’t want their paychecks interrupted and a number of extremely new teachers who are concerned about how that could affect them and holding on to a position. So the reality kind of set in if people were going to make that move back and what could potentially be at risk. So I will say that, we didn’t have the entire staff but those of us who felt very passionate about the fact that we have to do something to bring attention to what was going on in the building, we chose to just move forward. We respect the fact that there were people who, for their own personal reasons, didn’t feel like they were able to move in that direction. But we felt like if there would be enough of us that were going to do it, hopefully it would make some kind of wave, and it did.
Dennis: Tell us about how that process works and what you were able to achieve out of this collective action you took?
Faith: So like I said, we presented just our concerns through the safety committee to the administration as well as we actually submitted our concerns to the PAC [Parent Advisory Council]. And that was when a lot of our families — like you said, they really weren’t aware of the fact that it had gotten that out of control. And so when a number of teachers shared with the families that they weren’t returning to the building because of safety reasons, there were a number of families who joined us. When I myself and so many of my colleagues did choose to teach remotely without approval, there were families who were right there along with us because they felt the same way.
Dennis: Yeah, they trust our teachers. They trust the staff at the school because they know that they care about their kids. I mean, we don’t do this job for the money, that’s for sure. We do it because we care about teaching, we care about learning, we care about these children. So the families, I think, they trust us for that reason.
Faith: Absolutely. And so the Union was lock-step with us. They were the ones that were able to go to the bargaining table. Jesse Sharkey [CTU president] met with Pedro Martinez [CPS CEO] to talk about what the concerns were and what our conditions were and what would make us comfortable with returning back to the building. And I would say out of all of the demands that we had, which were very small or extremely reasonable, I would say about 80 percent of the demands were met and even in the midst of us working remotely, there was never any attempt to lock us out and they were able to even agree to not dock people for pay or any of those things.
Dennis: That’s good. That’s important. When you all stuck together, you were able to win a bunch of your demands and not suffer any discipline or retribution. I’m really glad to hear that. That’s a great story and a great message. And again, I’m really sorry to hear that this is what it takes: the loss of a colleague. The death of a person and the effect that it has on the community and their family is terrible. And yet this is what’s happening every day in this country. People feel scared about standing up, but the fact that you all stood up and stuck together to organize and make a demand out of it and fight around it is important. One final question I want to ask for people who are out there who may be in similar situations, whether it’s schools or other workplaces where they are concerned about their safety, what message would you have for those workers?
Faith: Just based on the experience that I had at my school, we have to just realize that standing up for what is right ultimately will prevail. Even when we look at the Union, while some people may not necessarily feel that we’re getting 100 percent of the things that we demanded when we’ve gone on a strike, there are so many things we do get. And, you know, for people to just continue to be comfortable with the status quo of having the bare minimum is just unacceptable. And I think that one of the things I will say that I commend CPS for is the fact that they understood that it would have been really egregious for them to continue to ignore us or to reprimand us because at the end of the day, we are people and I always tell my students, “I’m a person before I’m anything else.” And so it seemed like hopefully they at least take that into consideration. One of the other things that I thought was really interesting was that the General Manager from Aramark [private custodial services company contracted by CPS] actually came to the school and sat and asked what they can do to continue to work with us to make the staff feel safe. And we were able to address them with questions, which was very eye-opening because I think that they even realized that they had dropped the ball. For example, one of the questions that I asked was, “How often or how frequently do they do air quality testing?” We learned from the administration that the last time that it had been done in our building was when nobody was there in November 2020.
Dennis: Oh my God, that is embarrassing. That was so long ago.
Faith: And I even had to read the email a couple of times because I’m just like, “Is that right?”
Dennis: Is that date right? Wow, that is very impressive. So what are your thoughts on tomorrow? And I know there’s— just so, you know, our readers can understand the background — CPS and the mayor are basically saying the schools are safe, we’re going to be fine. We’ve got hospitals that are nearing capacity. The cases are going through the roof. The positive positivity rates are 16, 17 percent, rising. What are your thoughts on what’s going to happen this week in schools?
Faith: So one of the other things that we did make a demand of and the Union was very open and honest with us about is the fact that they didn’t think that CPS would consider it, but it does seem like they’re at least attempting to consider it. This idea of if there was a certain number of buildings that have flipped to remote then the entire building should just go ahead and be flipped. So even though they dug their heels in the sand to say that we would never go fully remote, they are at least putting on the table the idea of based on the population of the school, and based on the number of cases, that there’s a potential of maybe class-by-class or even if absolutely necessary school-by-school, is something that at least is on the table.
Dennis: Yeah, that’s right. That’s good.
Faith: So for me, I’m super nervous because it seems like this new variant is far more contagious. And even though it doesn’t seem like it’s as fatal as the Delta variant, if we’re looking at scientific works, those two variants could marry each other, then we’ll have something that’s fatal and contagious.
Dennis: Yeah, it’s a numbers game. If you have more people infected, even if it’s less people that are having worse outcomes, that’s still numerically more people. I mean, it’s simple math.
Faith: So you know, I just feel like we’re back to square one all over again and I just feel like unfortunately we’re going to have to pick another sacrificial lamb before CPS really has to come to the table and figure out a much better approach than they’ve taken at this point.
Dennis: I appreciate that. Are there any final thoughts you want to share before we conclude?
Faith: I just hope that people develop a better sense of empathy and recognize this as an issue of humanity and not be so desensitized to what’s going on around us because fortunately we aren’t experiencing as many deaths, but it’s just a case of Russian Roulette.