Chicago teachers continue to protest in-person classes; parents question status of locked-out teachers

But on Tuesday morning, when he went to sign in to the district platform, he was locked out.

The same thing happened to other teachers who refused to go back as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) carried out the first part of her school reopening plan, despite fierce resistance from the Chicago Teachers Union. The school district is requiring all teachers in the tier that started offering in-person instruction on Monday to teach from their schools if they did not have preapproved accommodations, even if their students had opted for remote learning.

It started disciplinary procedures early in the week on more than 140 employees for not reporting to schools in person and has withheld pay and locked them out of the school system’s accounts, deeming them absent without leave. By Friday, the number of designated AWOL employees dropped to 87. But 901 of the 3,787 employees did not report on Friday, including 479 teachers, according to Chicago Public Schools data.

After being locked out, Yuhas said he called parents and relayed lesson plans to some of them, and he spoke to a case manager at a long-term skilled nursing-care facility, where five of his eight students live, that helps individuals with developmental disabilities.

“I was the only person outside of the building that would actually see them without looking in the window,” he said about the students in the care facility. “I was the only person that had contact with them.”

For the next two days, Yuhas said two of his three morning classes were not given a substitute teacher.

Yuhas, who teaches at Uplift Community High School, said school was everything for these students. “The kids have disabilities, but they all have something they can work on,” he said. “Achieving that growth is the absolute greatest thing you can do in the life of a kid.”

Teachers in Chicago continue to protest going back to school and are being locked out of classrooms after the district opened its doors this past week to the first group of students: pre-K children and students who are diverse learners of all ages who need “moderate to intensive support,” many whom are medically fragile.

On Friday, a car caravan of teachers, parents and other supporters went to Union Park on the city’s West Side, where Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said he has two requests: make a safe, reasonable agreement defining things such as what level outbreak requires a school to be closed, and reinstate locked-out teachers.

“It makes no sense we have teachers who are locked out and unable to work with students who are online, when all their students are attending virtually,” Sharkey said. “Because a teacher won’t come into a classroom and deliver virtual instruction from the school, they are being locked out.”

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson has said she is open to compromising with the Chicago Teachers Union on a reopening agreement, but in-person learning must be an option.

Julie Lehto, whose daughter is in kindergarten at Inter-American Magnet School, said she is still torn about sending her daughter to school when kindergartners can go back on Feb. 1. She would have to take the bus about six miles from her neighborhood, which can take more than an hour in traffic.

“They’ve talked about temperature checks before getting into school,” Lehto said. “But when are they doing them? How many kids will be on the bus? Will they be socially distanced? How will the buses be cleaned?”

Lehto, who drives to her job for a manufacturer of industrial safety equipment an hour away, would need her daughter to take the school bus, or she would have a two-hour commute in the morning. But her daughter desperately wants to go back.

“My daughter cried on Thursday saying she just wants to go back to school,” Lehto said. “She’s been isolated for so long.”

About 37 percent of the 207,999 students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools opted for in-person learning. The district expected about 6,000 students in classrooms this past week; it did not release attendance numbers. Another 70,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade have opted for in-person instruction beginning Feb. 1, according to the district.

Many parents still think that going back to in-person learning isn’t safe until the coronavirus is better under control, and they would like their locked-out teachers reinstated. Nawar Almadani, a Syrian refugee and a mother of five, is one of those parents.

She doesn’t think it’s wise for her family and would like the teachers to have the same option to stay home. Almadani has continued online instruction for her oldest daughter, Alaa, 16, who has severe disabilities from seizures and a weakened immune system, even though the school called her this past week and asked her to reconsider coming back in person.

Three of her younger children are also learning from their two-bedroom apartment while she is taking online classes to learn English and become a nursing assistant.

Almadani said Yuhas is never absent and will call her if she is late helping her daughter log in. “I’m so sorry for him, because he’s a really good teacher,” Almadani said. “I wish he could come back. He understands my daughter and treats her like she’s a human.”

Almadani is far from alone. Other Chicago parents are questioning why teachers are being locked out of their classroom when the entire class has opted to stay remote.

Rachel Bennett, a Chicago mom, has a newborn, a 2-year-old daughter who had two open-heart surgeries for a defect, and a son in pre-K at Whittier Dual Language Magnet School. She said he is learning remotely for safety concerns. Bennett, who also works as a Chicago hospital nurse, said every student in her son’s preschool class opted to continue learning remotely, but his teacher was told she would have to return to the building to teach the class, even though all of her students were staying remote.

“Locking a teacher out when they are choosing to exercise their basic human rights, protecting their health and that of their families, is very concerning,” Bennett said. “CPS is choosing a power play as opposed to caring about what’s best for our students.”

Lightfoot has repeatedly said that in-person learning must be an option for all students in the city to help equalize the playing field. Jackson and Lightfoot say that reopening the district will help Black and Latino students, who make up 83 percent of the school system. But a majority of the students who opted for in-person instruction are White. Thirty-one percent of Latino, 33 percent of Asian and 33.9 percent of Black families said they would send their children to in-person classes, according to a survey conducted before schools reopened.

Chicago’s disparities among neighborhoods create problems in returning to classes, said Emily Landon, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine. Landon said it’s important to get students back to school, but the bigger problem is that some of the schools are “new and nice,” while some are “old and barely functioning.” Some of the classrooms are fully equipped, and some aren’t.

“There is disparity in the physical spaces and support that’s being offered,” she said.

Landon said the reopening of schools in Chicago, like in many other cities across the country, has become hyper-politicized. While the district’s plan “on the surface looks good,” Landon said the real question is how the plan is being implemented. “And is it going to be implemented fairly and equitably?” Landon said.

Throughout the past week, Chicago teachers, employees and parents have protested at different locations, with educators teaching classes outdoors in front of the home of Miguel del Valle, the president of the Chicago Board of Education and a former city clerk of Chicago.

Preschool teacher Sol Camano, speaking outside of del Valle’s home, said she has been teaching virtually since September at Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy, and all of her students have chosen remote learning.

“Yet, CPS has demanded that I return to the school and put my own health at risk,” said Camano, who was locked out of her school resources and accounts on Tuesday and did not get to teach her students. “My students are 4 and 5 years old. They have no idea what’s going on. What they know is their teacher wasn’t there yesterday, and they didn’t have their regular morning meeting.”

Camano works in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood on the city’s Northwest Side; it’s filled with many essential workers and has a virus positivity rate of 16.6 percent, according to Chicago’s Covid Dashboard.

“It’s far too dangerous, especially in our community,” Camano said.

On Friday, the Chicago Teachers Union’s coronavirus tracker showed that 832 cases have been tracked at 355 schools since March.

Illinois recorded its first confirmed case of the more contagious variant of the coronavirus on Friday. Chicago Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady said the fact that the new variant is probably more infectious does not change the decision around reopening schools, and residents must “double down” on safety strategies to help stop the virus by wearing masks, washing hands and practicing social distancing.

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