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Chicago Public Schools reopen: The majority of city councilors are « extremely concerned » that some teachers are refusing to return

Chicago Public Schools reopen: The majority of city councilors are "extremely concerned" that some teachers are refusing to return

The Chicago Union of Teachers said Sunday that many of its members expected to return to school on Monday will challenge Chicago Public Schools’ plans and teach only remotely, with the majority of Chicago councilors saying in a letter to the mayor that they are « extremely concerned » about Plans to reopen the city.

The moves mark an escalation of CTU’s months-long campaign for safe reopening and complicates Mayor Laurie Lightfoot and School President Janice Jackson’s plans to start returning thousands of teachers and students.

Thirty-three local councilors wrote a letter to Lightfoot and Jackson to say they were « extremely concerned » about the reopening of the CPS this month, expressing doubts about the racial equality and health and safety aspects of the city plan. They laid out nine steps the city should take as it looks to reopen its classrooms and urged the mayor and school district to collaborate with the teachers union about its concerns.

Jackson responded Sunday evening with a lengthy letter of her own saying that CPS officials had already addressed most of the concerns of city councilors and that « the data is clear that schools like ours can reopen safely. » Jackson cited the city’s sixteen learning centers and the thousands of students attending in-person classes at private and parochial schools as examples of how classrooms in the Chicago area could be safely reopened amid the pandemic. She said CPS has « met and bypassed » these schools’ mitigation protocols.

However, CPS does face challenges that many of them do not, such as high population density, higher populations of special education students, and children from low-income backgrounds. The area also faces a workforce that at least partially refuses to return to buildings it thinks are unsafe.

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At least 5,800 employees are set to return to their schools on Monday for the first time since the pandemic began, with 861 medical leave and nearly 300 pending applications, according to the CPS. Teachers work in pre-school and special education groups programs. Their students are scheduled to return on January 11th. Thousands of teachers and staff are expected to return on January 25, before schools reopen on February 1, for students from kindergarten to eighth grade.

A CTU spokeswoman said the union did not know how many members would refuse to return or whether that would derail the school system’s plans. CTU leaders said every worker who told his manager they would no longer be met with threats of discipline by the CPS, but the union would support any member who decided to stay home and expected to file a « ton » of grievances.

The union says members have contractual and legal rights to refuse to work in a workplace they believe is unsafe. A decision has not yet been made on collective labor action, such as a strike.

Jackson told the Sun Times last month that teachers who « don’t show » to work could be fired.

Aldermin Ed Burke (14th), Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Nick Sposato (38th) were among a handful of moderate and conservative House members who signed the speech, joining progressives who usually align with CTU issues.

City council members acknowledged the pressures of distance learning on both families and teachers, but said they were « extremely concerned about the current Chicago Public Schools plan … does not meet the district’s goal of increasing equity for students and fails to address a number of safety concerns identified by parents and students. » And staff appropriately in light of the ongoing pandemic. « 

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Lightfoot made it clear that reopening schools would be a fair solution for students of color who have less access to distance learning. Jackson repeated that argument Sunday, writing in her response that black and Latino students needed an opportunity for personal learning because many of them had « lagged far behind » in distance learning.

But the concerns of city councilors focus on the fact that despite those intentions, middle-class and white families have chosen to return to their schools twice as often as black, Latino, and low-income families who were less confident in the safety of the area. Measures to counter a pandemic that have disproportionately affected their communities. So with teachers now expected to split their efforts between classroom and screen, black and Latino students – the vast majority of whom decided to stay away – could receive less attention than before.

The letter urged CPS members to establish clear public health standards for the reopening; Create a detailed test plan and contact tracing; Improve internet access and reduce screen time for remote learners; Giving social workers, speech therapists and other physicians advance notice of students who will be returning in person; Giving transparent and timely decisions to those seeking medical leave; Provide clearer guidance on paid leave, and give regular public updates on hiring 2,000 new employees who will take on responsibilities related to the pandemic.

« A successful reopening plan should inspire public confidence through transparency, communication and cooperation, » Council members wrote. To this end, CPS needs real support and collaboration with parents, communities, and organized labor. We believe CPS can achieve this, and we are ready to assist in any way we can. « 

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Read the letter from Chicago City Council to Mayor Lightfoot and the CPS.

Read the CPS response to your local council member.

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