As Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot presses ahead with a controversial plan to reopen elementary schools next Monday, the 25,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) may be headed into its third strike since 2012.
Closed since March because of the coronavirus crisis, K-8 schools are set to resume in-person classes on February 1, with parents having the option of sending their children back or continuing remote learning. The decision was made unilaterally by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) despite ongoing negotiations with the union over how to reopen safely.
Elementary teachers and staff were ordered to return to school buildings this week to prepare for the reopening. But citing safety concerns, 71% of CTU members voted over the weekend to defy that order and continue teaching remotely until an agreement is reached.
Lightfoot has warned that educators who don’t report in-person by Monday may be locked out of online learning systems and docked pay. If that happens, the union is promising to go on strike.
“We are willing to keep teaching, but CPS has said they will lock us out,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. “Is the mayor creating a crisis just to get her way on a reopening date that ignores the risks in our schools and our neighborhoods?”
Coming 15 months after the CTU went on strike to demand Lightfoot keep her campaign promise of putting a nurse and social worker in every school, the confrontation is demonstrating the power of unions to fight for workers’ health and safety amid a pandemic that has killed over 425,000 people in the United States. As the incoming Biden administration attempts to get a handle on the pandemic, the CTU’s struggle is shaping the national discourse around what constitutes a safe way to reopen schools.
The union is asking for weekly testing for teachers and students inside school buildings, a public health metric for determining when schools reopen or close, and the flexibility to allow teachers to return to schools after they’ve been vaccinated
“I think our members have been beyond reasonable,” said CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates. “They are asking for a safe reopening. It’s not if we reopen, it’s how we reopen.”
Teachers just became eligible to receive Covid vaccinations this week. While educators in suburban Evanston and Skokie are already getting vaccinated, CTU members say CPS has not put forward a comprehensive plan to help them know when and where to receive vaccinations.
“This is the third largest school district in the United States, you would think they would have a real vaccination plan,” said Linda Perales, a special education teacher at Corkery Elementary in Little Village.
In contrast to CPS leaders, the head of the Los Angeles Unified School District — the nation’s second largest public school system — is insisting that in-person learning not resume until after teachers have been vaccinated.
When asked on Tuesday why she is refusing to wait until teachers can get vaccinated before reopening schools, Lightfoot appeared to pit teachers against frontline essential workers. “We also have others who have been out there every single day, working, putting themselves at risk,” she said. “How do we say to those folks, ‘You have to go to the back of the line?’”
“We have been teaching effectively since March, almost one year, from the safety of our homes. We know that essential workers, mostly Black and Brown folks, have not had that privilege. They should be the ones that are prioritized for this vaccine,” said Perales. “But CPS: If you’re trying to force us back into the building, give us a real vaccination plan.”
The union is also demanding telework accommodations for teachers who live with medically vulnerable family members, but says CPS is nitpicking over what counts as a sufficiently serious underlying health condition.
“We’re literally going back and forth on if cancer is more serious than hypertension or diabetes in terms of granting accommodations,” Davis Gates said. “This shouldn’t be a fight.”
At Joliet Public Schools District 86, the school board recently voted unanimously to continue remote learning until the end of the school year. Notably, the members of the Joliet school board are elected to their positions, unlike the members of the Chicago Board of Education, who are handpicked by the mayor.
Lightfoot claims her reopening plan is a matter of equity for students of color, who she says are falling behind under remote learning. But only 31% of Latino families and 33.9% of Black families feel comfortable sending their children back to school. These are the same communities that have been hardest hit by Covid-19.
The mayor also says her rush to reopen is in response to the demands of parents, who have struggled to find childcare options during remote learning. Yet out of 191,000 K-8 students at CPS, the parents of only 71,000 plan to send their kids back to school next week.
Meanwhile, optional in-person learning already resumed for pre-K and special education students on January 11, but less than 19% of those students have returned, with the rest choosing to continue online instruction.
“It’s obvious to everyone but CPS and the mayor that parents aren’t sending their children back because they do not believe schools are safe or that Covid is under control,” Davis Gates explained. “This is especially true for Black and Brown families.”
Pre-K and special education teachers and staff were ordered to reenter school buildings on January 4, but 40% refused to do so. Instead, many protested by setting up tables and laptops right outside their schools and holding remote learning sessions in frigid temperatures. CPS has moved to discipline over 100 of these teachers and staff, locking them out of their digital classrooms and docking their pay.
“I have been ripped away from my students for practicing my right to work in a safe working environment,” said Perales, who is among those locked out. “My students have not had me there in front of them to teach them. That is infuriating and that is not equity.”
The controversy in Chicago was thrust into the national spotlight earlier this week when President Joe Biden — who wants to reopen most of the nation’s schools within his first 100 days in office — was asked his opinion about it.
“We should make school classrooms safe and secure for the students, for the teachers and for the help that’s in those schools maintaining the facilities,” Biden said. “The teachers, I know they want to work. They just want to work in a safe environment.”
The mayor argues her reopening plan meets suitable health and safety criteria, but the CTU notes that in the three weeks since some teachers and staff were ordered back into buildings, new Covid cases have already been reported at 64 CPS schools.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a study on Tuesday reporting that the risk of Covid transmission in schools appears to be low, but the study only looked at schools in rural areas, not in a major city like Chicago.
Three CDC researchers also published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday with similar conclusions, but they warned that the reopening of schools must be paired with restrictions on indoor dining at restaurants and bars to prevent wider community spread. Lightfoot lifted a suspension on indoor dining in Chicago earlier this week.
Over 160 CPS nurses have signed a letter saying Lightfoot’s plan is unsafe. “Nurses who work in schools have not been asked to formulate CPS’s plan,” the letter states, “but we are expected to carry it out — despite our objections.” Although the union won a contract guarantee of eventually putting a nurse in every school following its strike in October 2019, the letter acknowledges that “CPS is still far away from having a nurse in every building every day.”
Meanwhile, 36 out of 50 elected alderpeople on the Chicago City Council have signed a letter of their own expressing concerns about the school reopening plan. Similarly, multiple local school councils — elected bodies of parents, students and teachers — have issued resolutions objecting to the plan.
“We want to return to safe, welcoming and thriving schools,” Davis Gates said. “That can’t happen until we put the health and safety precautions of our educators, our students and the larger community ahead of the unreasonable demand to return to school buildings that lack the necessary protocols to keep us safe.”
Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State College in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.