Ahead of the Chicago Teachers Union’s Sunday (Jan. 24) vote to refuse the return to in-person teaching, neighborhood leaders and educators had called the reopening of schools unsafe. One Logan Square-based teacher told Logan Squarist that many schools lacked the cleaning and other supplies needed during a pandemic.
On Sunday, the CTU said that thousands of Chicago educators will teach from home starting today, Monday, Jan. 25, defying orders from Chicago Public Schools, Block Club reported. CPS schools had reopened Jan. 11, though only one-fifth of eligible students returned, the Sun-Times reported. If teachers get locked out of their online accounts, the union said the teachers will strike.
One CPS teacher, who lives in and works near Logan Square, told us her school was better prepared than most CPS schools but noted that it didn’t have enough necessary equipment if everyone had returned to school today. “We have some purifiers for the rooms that opened … enough for people going in, especially since some teachers are staying home,” the teacher said during the first week of reopened classes. “However, we do not have enough air purifiers should everyone start coming in on the 25th.”
That teacher, who returned to school as mandated by the city, had already returned to quarantine before the CTU announcement. “I have two positive cases in my classroom and am now quarantining for 14 days,” she’d told us.
CPS had said schools needed to return to in-person teaching because online learning had failed to meet many students’ needs. “Thanks to the hard work of our educators and school leaders, our students’ online learning experience has improved dramatically since the spring,” CPS said. “However, it cannot replace a traditional in-person classroom. The availability of safe, in-person instruction is an issue of equity.” Mayor Lori Lightfoot, too, had emphasized equity in justifying the reopening, noting that Black and Latino students have faced greater struggles with remote learning, as the Tribune reported.
Last week, teachers in Avondale worked outside to protest what they called an unsafe return to in-person teaching, Block Club reported. Those educators noted a lack of “basic supplies like proper-fitting face shields and disinfectant.” In his Jan. 12 newsletter, First Ward Alderman Daniel La Spata wrote that many in the area had criticized the reopenings. “I have heard from dozens of administrators, parents, clinicians, teachers and even students about their fears and anxieties related to CPS’s proposed reopening plan,” La Spata said. “I’ve received letters from local school councils who believe now is not the time for in-person learning to be resuming.”
La Spata emphasized that Chicago has over 1,000 individuals testing positive for COVID-19 every day.
Unprepared Before COVID
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many CPS schools failed to furnish teachers with sanitary supplies needed for healthy in-person teaching, the Logan Square teacher told us. And many schools remained unsupported. “It should not have taken a pandemic for my building to have soap in it every day. The district allocated over $2 million to purchase 86,000 containers of disinfectant wipes – 86,000 divided by 642 CPS schools is 134 containers per school. I teach at a pre-K special education classroom. We have breakfast, lunch and snacks. We have blood. Kids put their hands in their mouths. There’s snot on the chairs. I normally go through two large containers a week.”
Still, the teacher said, her school was doing what it could to keep teachers and students safe. “I have been teaching for over a decade on the Near West Side. My school, specifically, has been doing everything they can within the guidelines. I know the janitorial staff has been doing as much as they can with cleaning and sanitizing. CPS has given out air purifiers that they’re saying are going to solve everything indoors.”
In its reopening guide sent to parents, CPS said that schools were ready for safe in-person teaching, as “we have been working tirelessly to prepare our buildings to welcome students and staff back to school.” CPS said its precautions included mandatory face masks, daily symptom testing, contact tracing, HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) purifier installation, the hiring of 400 additional custodians, and requirements that teachers and students stay in small social pods. Schools were also stocking up on soap, sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, CPS said.
Meawhile, some parents had pushed for more students to retun to in-person teaching, ABC 7 Chicago reported. “Parents should not be vilified or bullied for needing a choice to return to in-person learning,” CPS parent Sarah Sachen told ABC 7.
As Cases Rose, Teachers Were ‘Scared for Their Lives’
The Chicago Teachers’ Union has a tracker for positive COVID-19 cases in schools. As of Jan. 24, CTU was tracking 979 cases at 386 schools, over 20 of which were in Logan Square. The union included a statement on the tracker page. “CTU members are doing what they always do: taking care of their students and their communities. There is no place we would rather be than in our classrooms with our students, but a successful resumption of in-person learning cannot happen without providing for the safety of students, educators, family members, and the communities in which we work and live.”
That union statement didn’t officially oppose the return of in-person teaching, but union members began voting on refusing in-person teaching last week. CTU leaders told Block Club today’s refusal doesn’t fit the definition of a traditional strike, while CPS officials called it “an illegal strike.”
“Stripping tens of thousands of students of the opportunity for safe, in-person learning is not an option or a viable solution for families who have been planning to return since December,” CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton told Block Club.
While waiting for news about potential union actions, our source told us schools were seeing infections despite teachers’ best efforts. ”I went into the building on Monday [Jan. 11] masked. I could show you pictures of my classroom. Everyone was 6 feet apart. I did not touch children. I was nowhere within 6 feet of the children.” Still, students in her school got positive COVID-19 test results.
The source also criticized how CPS was informing people potentially exposed to COVID-19. “At my school what they are saying is they are quarantining all the affected people. Students are going remote and teachers are working from home if they are affected. And the pod is closed for two weeks. And the rooms are deep cleaned. That’s what happens for first contact.” Not everyone who came into contact with infected individuals was getting contacted, though, the teacher said. “If you were my student and you come in and the positive person was in the room, you were a first contact. However, if you are a lunch worker and you come in for 5 minutes to deliver lunch, even though you were in the room, you are technically a second contact. You do not get notified. And you do not get to stay home.”
The source emphasized Mayor Lightfoot’s Logan Square residency and how CPS reopening might have affected her personal life. “Lori Lightfoot lives in Logan Square. The school four blocks from her house has a case as of Tuesday, Jan. 12. And had her child gone to public school, that is her child’s public school. So it’s very close to home.”
Our source noted a toxic culture within CPS that’s prevented her from addressing concerns or complaints to the school system. “I can’t go to CPS, because they’re incredibly retaliatory. In 2011, in preparation to negotiate for the 2012-2015 contract, CPS spent $10 million on private investigators to ‘catch’ teachers that had used sicks days and personal days inappropriately,” she said. (In 2017, WTTW reported, the CPS Office of Internal Audit and Compliance asked dozens of teachers to show proof that they’d used sick days appropriately.) “There is no respect or trust,” our source said. “If we go full circle, the union is asking for equity, safety and trust.”
This Logan Square teacher said she didn’t see reopening at this time as equitable for the city’s most disadvantaged children and schools.
“When people contact the union, it is because they are scared,” she said. “And now, they are scared for their lives.”
Featured photo: James Monroe Elementary School. Photo: Michael Dhar