More than 5,800 Chicago Public Schools educators and staffers were due back in their classrooms Monday to begin prep for in-person learning next week, but many teachers say they won’t go back because of COVID-19.
During an early morning press conference, teachers from multiple CPS schools said they and some of their colleagues won’t head back into schools because they believe the school district isn’t doing enough to keep them and their students safe.
“I made the decision to refuse to re-enter the building because I think it is extremely unsafe and I am in fear for my life and for my safety, the safety of our students and my fellow co-workers,” Quentin Washington, a teacher at Sadlowski Elementary, said Monday.
CPS previously announced pre-kindergarten and special education cluster program students who’ve opted to resume in-person learning will head back to their schools on Jan. 11. Before they do, 5,833 teachers and staffers were expected to return to their buildings Monday.
According to the district, the vast majority of returning employees did not ask to continue working remotely. But of the roughly 2,000 who did, less than half — about 43% — had their requests approved by CPS.
Washington and other teachers said they plan to continue working remotely. Kirsten Roberts, an educator at Brentano Math & Science Academy in Logan Square, said her school has already seen two COVID-19 cases with only a skeleton staff in place.
“I want to live to see the end of this virus just like everybody else,” she said, “I want my family to survive it too.”
The Chicago Teachers Union has fought for months against a return to in-person learning until, they say, it is safer to do so. They were joined over the weekend by dozens of city aldermen who wrote a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, urging her to reconsider the reopening plan.
Those aldermen said they’re “deeply concerned” that the plan doesn’t 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.”
The letter calls on Lightfoot to establish clear public health criteria for reopening as well as detailed plans for testing and contact tracing.
CPS CEO Janice Jackson sent a nine-page response to those aldermen Sunday, addressing many of their concerns.
She pointed to a lack of outbreaks in the 90-plus Chicago Catholic schools that reopened last fall and the city’s 3,000 day care centers, which have been operating for the past six months.
Jackson also said the city’s current doubling rate — the time it takes for the number of COVID-19 cases to double — is 96.2 days, which is well above the 18-day threshold for reopening previously established by the Chicago Department of Public Health.
“Our students and families are depending on us, and welcoming them back safely is our highest priority,” Jackson said in the response letter. “This year has undoubtedly been challenging, but we remain confident that our team of talented educators will do everything possible to ensure our students have what they need to succeed.”
It’s not immediately clear what discipline teachers refusing to return to their schools could face. But CTU President Jesse Sharkey said he believes the district could threaten those teachers with suspension or even dismissal.
“Right now we’ve got special education teachers and clinicians and (paraprofessionals) who work with some of the most vulnerable and important populations that we have in the city, those are the folks who are being told to go back,” Sharkey said. “It would be a disaster for CPS to start firing that set of folks, especially since this is an action which is affecting hundreds and thousands of people.”
The CTU was expected to hold a second press conference during a teach-in at Brentano on Monday afternoon.
CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said the CTU hasn’t identified any area in which the district's plan falls short of public health guidelines. She called the union’s tactics “deeply disrespectful to the 77,000 mostly Black and Latinx families who selected in-person learning.”
“It is the district's expectation that teachers without an accommodation report to work,” Bolton said in a statement, “just as principals, custodial staff, engineers, and food service staff have throughout the entirety of the pandemic."
Heather Cherone contributed to this report.