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Some Chicago Public Schools teachers balk at return to classrooms

Jan. 4, 2021
Teachers union says the school district is forcing a return to classrooms that teachers feel are unsafe.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) says some of its members have chosen not to return to school buildings today in defiance of Chicago Public Schools’ reopening plans.

The Chicago Tribune reports that union says is rejecting the district's plans to "force thousands more back into unsafe buildings." Teachers who are balking at a return to in-person teaching intend to continue providing their lessons remotely “until buildings are safe," the union says.

Some of the teachers refusing to return to the classroom said at a news conference Monday morning that they’re worried about losing their jobs but they believe that reopening schools is a greater risk.

“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,”  teacher Lori Torres says. “But the fear of this virus is greater than that fear.”

About 5,800 teachers and other staff members who serve preschoolers and some special education students are scheduled to return to school buildings today, and their students are set to return on Jan. 11. It would be the first in-person classes in the city's public schools since Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker closed schools statewide in March.

The district did not disclose Monday the number of teachers who showed up or who continued delivering lessons remotely, and has not directly responded to most questions about how the latter cases will be handled.

More than 30 of the city council's 50 aldermen have signed on to a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, saying they were “deeply concerned” that the reopening plan does not meet the district’s equity objectives and fails to address some safety concerns.

Union officials say some members might show up for work today but that the union will provide legal and other support to those who choose not to.

The school district has pushed back reopening plans multiple times but have said their phased-in plan, which would have the bulk of kindergarten through eighth graders returning on Feb. 1 for parents who choose that option, is a cautious approach with many health safeguards in place.

The district says that schools can reopen safely.

“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,” says district spokeswoman Emily Bolton. “It is the district’s expectation that teachers without an accommodation report to work tomorrow, just as principals, custodial staff, engineers, and food service staff have throughout the entirety of the pandemic.”

The district also responded to the aldermen’s letter with its own nine-page letter from Jackson.

“Families who attend private and parochial schools in your communities have had this option for months, and providing this option is a matter of equity that will have ramifications for years to come,” the letter said. “In-person learning is not the right choice for every student, but it must be an option for all.”

The district has granted accommodations for many teachers with underlying health conditions, but has rejected special exceptions for many teachers with an immediate family member who is at high risk. District officials have indicated they expect staff members without special accommodations to show up for work in person.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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