President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are pressuring schools to fully reopen in the fall.
The president has even threatened on Twitter to cut funding from school districts that don’t reopen fully — although it’s unclear how he could do that.
But as many teachers, parents and even some students express fears over returning to school, Chicago Public Schools has yet to unveil a specific reopening plan — and coronavirus cases across the country are surging. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said last week a plan would be announced “soon.”
But the Chicago Teachers Union says the vast majority of its members are unsure about returning to the classroom amid the pandemic.
After polling almost 5,000 of its members, the CTU said last week that more than 85% feel they should not or might not go back to work in the fall without a detailed plan and resources that will help guarantee safety.
“Our members have made it very clear that they are not willing to put the health — and the lives, quite frankly —of their students, or their students’ families, or their own in jeopardy under any circumstances, and especially now if the Trump administration is talking about using them as guinea pigs to help jumpstart the economy,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey.
Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the CTU and the executive vice president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, says the union has yet to get clarity on plans to reopen schools from CPS.
“There’s no way to reopen schools safely in the middle of the pandemic — we haven’t even hit the second wave.” said Davis Gates. “Any school reopening plan is a plan that is only about mitigating risk which means that there will still be harm … Chicago Public Schools is 90% students of color — Latinx children and Black children. We know nationally that COVID has impacted both of those demographics the most. So when we are talking about going back to school we are talking about going back to school with students who have suffered an intense amount of trauma, whose parents are facing eviction, where unemployment benefits are going to run out.”
But the Illinois Policy Institute, a right-leaning free market think tank based in Chicago, published a report Monday in which it argues that Illinois schools should reopen fully in the fall — even if some accommodations have to be made for teachers and students who may be at greater risk than the general population.
“All policies must be subject to cost-benefit analyses,” writes the report’s author Amy Korte, vice president of policy at the IPI. “Given what is now known about the COVID-19 virus, as well as the detrimental effects of school closures, the calculation weighs heavily in favor of full-time, in-person instruction for the vast majority of Illinois schoolchildren.”
The report also notes that children “are much less likely than adults to become severely ill with COVID-19 or to require hospitalization.”
But CPS charter school teacher Andrea Zayas, who has four young children, has her doubts about any reopening plan at this time.
“We closed in March to avoid the spread of COVID and now after 130,000 people have died and the cases are going up, why would it be safe now to open schools when it was dangerous enough at lower numbers to close schools?” she asked. “A lot of people are even suggesting national teacher strikes. If our safety and the safety of the children that we are caring for is not the priority then we have to act to keep them safe.”