Chicago schools reopening: Teachers refuse to return to school amidst concerns for student’s safety

The fight over when and how to reopen Chicago Public Schools for the first time during the still-raging pandemic has culminated with many teachers refusing to return to their schools Monday, a day that officials had hoped would be the start of a return to normalcy for education in the city.

Citing health and safety concerns and a lack of trust in the school district’s coronavirus mitigation protocols, about 5,800 school staffers who work with preschoolers and students with moderate to complex disabilities are individually deciding whether to follow their orders to report to schools Monday. About 6,500 of their students are set to go back to school next Monday, while over 10,000 will be staying remote.

While many are choosing to continue working from home, others have shown up to their schools and reported a range of conditions, from no problems at all to dirty and cramped rooms with little ventilation. At Brentano Elementary in Logan Square, teachers and clinicians set up makeshift workspaces in the school courtyard, working in freezing temperatures as a form of protest against being told to go back into classrooms they believe are unsafe.

Pre-K teacher Kristin Roberts covers herself with a warming blanket during a virtual class outside during a protest against returning to in person teaching at Brentano Elementary School at 2723 N Fairfield Ave in Logan Square, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

CPS officials have said those who don’t report to their schools will face discipline. The Chicago Teachers Union, which has campaigned for several months against CPS’ plans for reopening, has said it will back its members but has not yet called for any collective action, such as a work stoppage.

Later this month, all kindergarten through eighth grade staff are due back ahead of a Feb. 1 reopening for those schools.

Linda Perales is a kindergarten to second grade cluster teacher at Corkery Elementary School.

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Linda Perales, a special education cluster teacher at Corkery Elementary, said she decided to continue teaching remotely without approval Monday because a return to the classroom doesn’t necessarily mean her students will receive the proper therapy and education.

“We know that K-2 cluster students can’t wear a face mask all day, they cannot social distance and that increases the transmission of COVID-19,” Perales said in a news conference hosted by the CTU Monday. “They will have to wear a face mask all day. Teachers will have to wear a face mask all day, and that is so important to note because it’s going to make it impossible to teach letter sounds and other things like that.”

Perales and other teachers said they are concerned that returning to in-person learning will affect low-income students by increasing the risk of transmission and bringing the coronavirus back to their communities, which have already been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Chicago Public Schools teacher Lori Torres

Lori Torres
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On Sunday, CPS chief Janice Jackson argued in a letter that returning to in-person learning will help Black and Latino students who “have fallen behind” in remote learning. Jackson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot have made those equity concerns a focal point of their strong push to return to schools.

But with two-thirds of Black and Latino students choosing to continue learning from home, Lori Torres, a teacher in Logan Square, said CPS has not taken equity into consideration and is expecting teachers to teach students in-person and remotely without having extra support.

“Pushing teachers and students into buildings will weaken our remote learning plans, not strengthen them,” Torres said. “Teachers are expected to be two people, managing kids in front of them and managing kids on the screen. Aside from being safe, the decisions the district have made tell us that we still can’t trust that what they put into place have us in mind.”

Jackson’s letter was in response to one from 33 aldermen — a majority of the 50-member City Council — who said they were “deeply concerned” about the city’s reopening plans in the midst of the pandemic.

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