In the face of a potential walkout by Chicago Teachers Union members, Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said he is committed to putting in place COVID-19 cases metrics for closing schools and classrooms.
Martinez said a “tactical” approach that recognizes the varied way the pandemic has played out in various communities is a better approach than a wholesale move to remote learning.
Chicago students were back in their classrooms Monday for the first time in 2022 following a two-week winter break for the holidays, but their return may be short lived, as Chicago Teachers Union members are set to vote Tuesday on whether to walk out, citing a lack of protection from rising COVID-19 cases.
“I’ve been in active communications with the senior leadership of CTU, my team has been in active communications. I am convinced we can come up with a solution before we get to that point (of a walkout),” Martinez said. “And the solution should really be at a school level. I think we can develop metrics, where we can be nimble at a school that is struggling with COVID cases, where we have a lot of staff under quarantine. Yes, we will have to transition classrooms, maybe the entire school, to remote as we manage through that. And then we add resources. We add more COVID testing, we add vaccination events at those schools, while other schools will be in much better place. And I just feel that in a district our size that is the best way to manage.”
Martinez said he believes the metrics can be finalized this week.
Members of the Chicago City Council, like 6th Ward Ald. Roderick Sawyer said in a statement that he knows in-school learning is best, but only if it’s done safely and responsibly and right now he’s not certain that’s happening.
“On-site testing and optional vaccination, high-quality masks, improved ventilation, and evidence-based metrics and procedures to handle outbreaks in schools are of the utmost importance, and at this time, I am not convinced that these mitigations have been properly implemented,” Sawyer said.
Parent J.P. Paulus sent his two children, a fifth grader and a junior, to their respective South Side schools Monday with some sense of security, given that they’re vaccinated, but said he’d rather they temporarily have the option to learn online.
“At least for the next two weeks, because that way everybody’s come home from the holidays, from vacations, from being at the movies. They can know for sure then if they have COVID and it will die down and from there we can see where kids stand, and also our city in general,” Paulus said.
Paulus said it’s wrong for CPS to ignore the wishes of parents who want their kids to be able to learn from home.
Ryan Griffin’s the parent of two fully vaccinated CPS students, ages 5 and 7, and is making a plea to Chicago teachers to recognize the importance of in-school learning, and not take that away.
“Fundamentally, who runs the district right now? And I think the teachers’ union is arguing that they have the right and ability to shut down a district that serves 330,000 students. It’s perplexing to us as parents that we turn to public health officials for information about the pandemic. I don’t ask the teachers what they think about public health guidance, we turn to experts in that space,” Griffin said. “And in this case the experts are saying the priority is in-person learning, it’s safe.”
Griffin said he is thankful that Martinez is refusing to move wholesale to online learning.
Chicago’s top doctor, Dr. Allison Arwady, is among medical professionals who has said students are likely more protected in the classroom where masks are required than at play dates and out and about in general.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a statement Monday said CPS has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on mitigations, and she is relying on science – data showing transmission in schools is low.
“We cannot ignore the sad lessons of a whole district resorting to remote learning: significant learning loss, particularly among students of color; severe hardship on families who had to work and could not home school students; mental health trauma arising from isolation; absence of extracurricular activities, and tens of thousands of students daily who failed to participate in remote learning,” Lightfoot said. “We cannot forget that shifting fully to remote learning is not a panacea and comes with significant harm to students and their families. The best thing that we can do for our students, staff and all our partners at CPS is to get vaccinated. Keeping kids safely in school where they can learn and thrive is what we should all be focused on.”
Among CTU’s asks prior to returning to class Monday was requiring negative COVID-19 tests from all students and staff.
Before the break, CPS distributed 150,000 tests to schools in hard-hit communities.
In a statement, the district Monday said roughly 40,000 were returned, and of those, half came back “inconclusive.”
Paulus’ kids’ tests were among them. He says his family followed the instructions. He suspects the issue is a result of how far the tests had to travel – his were mailed to South Carolina. He said given that after 48 hours, the samples are no longer acceptable.
Martinez says he is also frustrated by the outcome of the district’s attempt to test students before school resumed. He said the district was trying to ensure access, but it was difficult to pull off the initiative with schools closed.
Martinez said the vendor’s working to resolve those issues, and in-school testing is expanding this week.
“I am committed to finding ways to expand testing,” Martinez said. “It’s been very frustrating for me just how difficult it is to increase capacity here.”
Martinez also says 200,000 KN95 masks are on the way, the majority of which will get to schools by Wednesday.
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