Video: Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates joins “Chicago Tonight” in discussion. (Produced by Evan Garcia)
Less than half of Chicago Public Schools educators who were expected to return to school buildings Monday to prep for in-person learning actually did so.
CPS CEO Janice Jackson said 49.7% of teachers and 70% of paraprofessionals who were told to go to their schools returned Monday, one week before in-person learning is set to resume for thousands of pre-kindergarten and special education cluster program students.
“We are optimistic that more staff will report to work in the coming days,” Jackson said Tuesday. “If staff choose not to attend and support the students who are relying on them, we will handle those on a school-by-school and case-by-case basis.”
Jackson said staffers who didn’t show up in person received an email reminding them of the district’s expectations. Those who continue to not show up will face a “progressive discipline” policy. She added that it’s in “no one’s interest” to fire teachers, but those employees are expected to show up for work.
In all, just over 60% of the 5,800 school-based employees expected back at schools Monday did report to work. Jackson said that figure is significant given the pressure the Chicago Teachers Union has put on its members not to attend.
Earlier Tuesday morning, CTU President Jesse Sharkey suggested delaying the start of school and allowing more people to get COVID-19 vaccinations before in-person learning resumes.
“We have a lot of ideas about how we can make this schooling in a pandemic work in order to still keep us safe, in order to restore trust in this process,” he said. “But it’s not going to work if the district simply continues dictating to us and doesn’t sit at the table and listen to the people who are most on the ground, who know most about what the specific conditions are like in buildings.”
The union has repeatedly stressed that CPS is not doing enough to protect teachers and students from the coronavirus and that a return to in-person learning should be pushed back until it is safer to do so.
Jackson said CPS and CTU have met nearly 50 times since June, including twice a week for months, and that there is “broad agreement” on many in-school safety issues, including ventilation, personal protective equipment and contact tracing.
“I know this may not align with much of what you’ve heard in recent days, but this is simply the truth,” she said. “While an agreement is not required to reopen schools, we believe that one is within reach and we will continue to work collaboratively with the union to reach one as quickly as possible.”
In-person learning for pre-K and cluster program students who’ve opted to return is set to resume Jan. 11. Students in grades K-8 who’ve opted to return will do so Feb. 1. In all, the district said more than 77,000 students chose to return to in-person learning.
Dr. Marielle Fricchione of the Chicago Department of Public Health said she believes the layered mitigation strategies — like mask wearing, social distancing, hand hygiene and environmental cleaning — included in the CPS reopening plan will be enough to prevent spread of COVID-19 in school buildings.
It’s not a “zero-risk proposition,” Fricchione said, but “it is safe” for students and staff to return to schools with those policies in place.
Jackson on Tuesday also criticized the more than 30 Chicago aldermen who sent a letter over the weekend to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, urging her to rethink the school district’s reopening plan.
“There have been schools operating in every single ward, in every single community throughout this city, so why the concern now?” she said. “Do they care more about the lives of CPS teachers than the Catholic school teachers that have been going to school since August?”
Jackson said many of the issues raised in the letter were already addressed in the district’s reopening plan, and that CPS will continue to listen to concerns from elected officials and the community. But, she added, “When it’s purely political or just a distraction, people need to be called out for that hypocrisy.”
Note: This story will be updated with video.