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Chicago Teachers Union Members Take Stand Against Unsafe School Conditions

"We're afraid for our lives. We don't want to lose our jobs. The fear of losing our jobs is real," said one teacher. "But the fear of this virus is greater than that fear."

Chicago Teachers Union leadership list their demands and leave a box of coal outside the entrance of City Hall following a car caravan where teachers and supporters demanded a safe and equitable return to in-person learning during the Covid-19 pandemic on December 12, 2020. Select public school teachers are expected to return to classrooms on January 4, 2021. (Photo: Max Herman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Chicago Teachers Union leadership list their demands and leave a box of coal outside the entrance of City Hall following a car caravan where teachers and supporters demanded a safe and equitable return to in-person learning during the Covid-19 pandemic on December 12, 2020. Select public school teachers are expected to return to classrooms on January 4, 2021. (Photo: Max Herman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As the national debate about remote versus in-person learning rages on and the U.S. Covid-19 death toll nears 352,000, some unionized teachers in Chicago refused to return to classrooms on Monday—the first day of the city's phased reopening of public schools—citing safety concerns in the midst of the worsening coronavirus pandemic.

"We're afraid for our lives. We don't want to lose our jobs. The fear of losing our jobs is real. Many of us are the sole income earners in our homes," Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher Lori Torres said Monday, according to the Chicago Tribune. "But the fear of this virus is greater than that fear."

Torres joined other members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and parents for a Monday morning Zoom press conference to explain why they are rejecting CPS' attempt to force a return to in-person learning "until the pandemic is under control and classrooms can be shown to be safe."

As the Tribune reports:

About 5,800 teachers and other staff members who serve preschoolers and some special education students were expected to return to classrooms on Monday, with those students due to return on January 11, which would mark the first in-person classes in CPS since the coronavirus prompted a statewide shutdown of schools in March.

About another 850 staff members were granted leave or an accommodation exempting them from in-person teaching.

Torres warned that "pushing teachers and students into buildings will weaken our remote learning plans, not strengthen them."

Linda Perales, a kindergarten to second grade cluster teacher at Corkery Elementary School, explained Monday that she decided to continue teaching remotely so she could properly instruct students, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

"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. "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."

A Sunday statement Sunday from the union said that "CTU members and allies will stage a series of actions and forums during the week to raise awareness about persistent safety issues in schools, as the Prosser school community continues to mourn the death of a valued school clerk last week from Covid."

Despite the below-freezing temperature, some teachers at Brentano Math & Science Academy taught remotely outside the building. Other educators and school staff took to social media to share concerns about returning to classrooms:

The CTU is circulating a Covid-19 safety tracker for teachers who return to schools and a letter (pdf) members can send to principals that says: "I am unable to report for in-person work at the school building because of the abnormally dangerous health conditions at the school due to the pandemic and my belief that reporting for in-person work would place me in imminent danger. I am ready and willing to perform my work duties, but cannot work inside my school building."

CPS claimed in a statement Sunday that "the overwhelming scientific evidence, expert guidance, and experiences of school districts across Illinois are clear: schools can safely reopen with a comprehensive plan in place. The CTU has not identified any area where the district's plan falls short of public health guidelines and the CTU's last-minute tactics are deeply disrespectful to the 77,000 mostly Black and Latinx families who selected in-person learning."

The union's Sunday statement said in part:

CPS wants to force pre-K and special education cluster teachers back into buildings on Monday, six days before Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot's most recent stay-at-home order expires—and before health professionals can gauge any additional post-holiday risk of spread. At the same time, more than two-thirds of Black and Brown parents have rejected in-person learning despite pressure from CPS to agree to send students back starting on January 11, putting the lie to the mayor's 'equity' claims that schools are being reopened to serve the district's overwhelmingly non-white students.

CPS has also refused to commit any of the $800 million in new federal Covid relief to support the district's overwhelmingly Black and Brown students, whose families have been hammered by Covid sickness and death since the pandemic started. The CTU has called on CPS to fast-track the hiring of nurses, since virtually no CPS school has a nurse onsite more than once a week. And the union has called on CPS to invest in more social workers, counselors, and wrap-around supports to help students navigate the trauma of a virus that has disproportionately harmed Chicago's Black and Latinx communities, even as families are confronting mounting financial hardship and Chicago is reeling from one of the most violent years in its history.

The union has called for fast-tracking vaccinations for school workers and families in areas with high infection rates, "but CPS and the mayor's hand-picked board of education have refused to bargain over getting vaccines to school community members, or over any safety or educational protocols since the pandemic began," the statement added. "At the same time, CPS has refused to inspect school ventilation systems for their ability—or failure—to prevent the spread of the virus in classrooms."

Fellow educators and allies expressed support for CTU members on social media:

Two-thirds of the city's aldermen, including key allies of Lightfoot, sent a letter Sunday to the mayor and CPS CEO Janice Jackson that says, "We are deeply concerned that Chicago Public Schools' current plan for students and staff to return to school buildings does not meet the district's current objective of increasing equity for students, and fails to adequately address a number of safety concerns identified by parents, students, and staff in light of the ongoing pandemic."

"We have been alarmed to see, read, and hear consistent testimony from educators expressing their profound frustration with the status quo," the letter continues. "A successful reopening plan must inspire public trust through transparency, communication and collaboration. To that end, CPS needs true buy-in from and collaboration with parents, communities, and organized labor."

The Sun-Times reports that "Jackson responded Sunday evening with a lengthy letter of her own that said CPS officials have already addressed most of the aldermen's concerns and that the 'data are clear that schools like ours can reopen safely.' Jackson pointed to the the city's 16 learning hubs and the thousands of students attending in-person classes at private and parochial schools as examples of how Chicago-area classrooms have safely reopened amid the pandemic."

On the national level, President-elect Joe Biden, who is set to take office January 20, said last week that he hopes to reopen "most of our K-8 schools by the end of our first 100 days in the spring, but we can only do that if Congress provides the necessary funding so we can get schools, districts, communities, and states the resources they need for so many things that aren't in their already tight budgets."

"They need funding for testing to help reopen schools—more funding for transportation so students can maintain social distancing on buses," he said. "They need it for school buildings, for additional cleaning services, protective equipment, and ventilation systems. This will require an additional tens of billions of dollars to get it done."

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