A majority of the Chicago City Council has signed on to a letter expressing concern over the reopening plan being implemented by Chicago Public Schools. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
The Chicago Teachers Union said Sunday that many of its members who are expected back Monday are telling their principals they won’t return and will continue to work remotely. A majority of Chicago’s City Council wrote a letter Sunday to Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson to say they are “deeply concerned” with Chicago Public Schools’ scheduled reopening this month, expressing doubt in the racial equity and health and safety aspects of the city’s plan.
The 32 aldermen laid out nine steps the city should take as it looks to send students and staff back to classrooms, and urged the mayor and school district to collaborate with the Chicago Teachers Union over its concerns, according to the letter obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
At least 5,800 employees are expected to return to their schools Monday for the first time since the pandemic began, with another 861 granted medical leaves and about 300 requests still pending, according to CPS. The educators work in preschool and special education cluster programs, whose students are set to return Jan. 11.
The CTU, escalating its months-long campaign for a safe reopening, said in a news release Sunday that many of its members expected back Monday are telling their principals they won’t return and will continue to work remotely. A CTU spokeswoman said the union doesn’t know how many members are refusing to return or whether that could derail the school system’s plans.
Those messages have been met with threats of discipline, but the union will back any member who decides not to return and expects “a ton” of grievances to be filed, CTU leaders said.
The union is arguing members have contractual and legal rights to refuse to work in a workplace they believe is unsafe. A decision on a collective labor action, such as a work stoppage, has not yet been made.
CPS CEO Janice Jackson told the Sun-Times last month that teachers who “don’t show up” to work could be fired. City Hall and CPS spokespersons did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Ald. Ed Burke (14th) and Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) were among the aldermen signing the letter, joining the progressives who typically align with CTU causes.
The aldermen acknowledged the stressors of remote learning on both families and educators, but are “deeply concerned that Chicago Public Schools’ current plan … does not meet the district’s 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 equity concerns center on the fact that white and middle-class families have opted to return to their schools at double the rate of Black, Latino and low-income families. That’s despite the mayor and schools officials selling the planned reopening as an equitable solution for students of color who have had less access to remote learning.
With educators now expected to split their effort between the classroom and the screen, Black and Latino students — the vast majority of whom have decided to stay remote — could receive even less attention than before.
The letter urged CPS to establish clear public health criteria for reopening; establish a detailed testing and contact tracing plan; improve internet access and reduce screen time for remote learners; give social workers, speech therapists and other clinicians advance notice of which students will be returning in person; give timely and transparent decisions to those requesting medical leave; provide clearer guidelines on paid leave; and give regular public updates on the hiring of 2,000 new employees who’ll assume pandemic-related responsibilities.
“A successful reopening plan must inspire public trust through transparency, communication and collaboration,” the aldermen wrote. “To that end, CPS needs true buy-in from and collaboration with parents, communities and organized labor. We believe that CPS can achieve this, and stand ready to assist however we can.”
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