Parents weigh reopening decisions as tensions between Chicago leaders and union mount

Mother and child holding hands walking toward school entrance. A school bus in the background.

With a Wednesday deadline looming, some parents of pre-kindergarten and special education students are grappling with the decision over whether to send children back to campuses.

As they weigh the decision, tension is escalating between the district and the teachers union about school reopening plans.

Union leaders allege the district will not bargain over reopening issues. They filed an unfair labor practices lawsuit this week over a request to inspect school buildings that the district denied — only the latest effort to argue in court against in-person work they deem unsafe amid double-digit COVID-19 rates in some Chicago neighborhoods. A recent labor court ruling that clerks in schools should be allowed to work from home when possible is moving slowly, awaiting a next ruling. 

Even surveys to parents and teachers served as flashpoints this week. The district sent a survey to parents that said those who opt out of in-person instruction can return to the classroom in the third quarter “if space is available,” a phrase that confused some parents who thought their children could lose their seats. The union quickly seized on the ambiguity to argue the district is trying to pressure parents into choosing in-person instruction. The union also urged members to respond to a separate district survey of teachers by saying they would not return to school buildings “without supports.” 

The district clarified Thursday that all students can return to school buildings if they are open during the third quarter, regardless of what families decide now. And district officials lashed out at the union for obstructing the reopening plan, which they said prioritizes safety and aims to stem learning losses. 

Some parents said they worry about the mounting discord in a moment when so much is at stake for the city’s students. 

“I wish CPS and CTU would come together and work together on behalf of the families and the students,” said Beth Van Opstal, a mother of three district students, including a pre-kindergartner at National Teachers Academy on the city’s South Side. 

Wrestling with decisions

Van Opstal and other parents of students in pre-kindergarten and special education “cluster” programs received the survey Wednesday asking if they plan to send their kids back to school buildings. Some parents and parent advocates took to social media to voice concern about the letter and to say they still have unanswered questions about the fine print of the district’s reopening plan.

Although the district stressed that any students interested in learning in person will have that option, they also said that if interest in in-person instruction is high, some classrooms might have to offer a blend of in-person and online learning. 

“The language in the letter was intended to refer to the potential for hybrid learning, but we understand the confusion it may have caused,” a district spokesman said in a statement in response to questions from Chalkbeat. The district has since sent letters to parents to clarify. 

Van Opstal says her family wrestled with the decision. Van Opstal, a pediatrician and internal medicine doctor, and her husband, an emergency room physician, have been on the front lines of responding to the COVID-19 crisis — what she describes as “the worst experience in our medical careers.” They do not take the disease lightly. 

But Van Opstal worries about the long-term academic, social, and emotional fallout for children from the extended school closures. The closures have disproportionately affected students of color and low-income students. Like other frontline workers, Van Opstal’s family has had to place their children in daycare, but she would rather they learn with their teachers and peers. 

A major factor for the family was a recent large study of childcare workers, which showed that those who had continued working in reopened daycares had COVID-19 rates no higher than other workers. That adds to other emerging data suggesting that schools have not been a major site of coronavirus transmission.

“I feel sending back younger students is evidence based,” she said. “In the news, it’s often black and white. But there’s a lot of gray in these decisions.” 

Van Opstal said she wants to see more details from the district on its approach to contact tracing and the availability of COVID-19 testing and cleaning supplies. She said she hopes no employee uncomfortable with returning will be forced back. 

For Monica Espinoza, the mother of a pre-kindergartner at McAuliffe Elementary, on the city’s Northwest Side, the decision was straightforward. She responded immediately: She would not send her child back.

“I still have a knot in my stomach to think that CPS is considering bringing kids back at this rate of cases and losses in our community due to COVID-19 and violence,” she said. 

Espinoza, who serves as chair of McAuliffe’s Local School Council, said she trusts her school’s leadership, but she’s still not convinced that the district is ready to deliver on promised safety measures, including proper ventilation and sanitation of its buildings and hiring an adequate number of trained janitors. 

“I can only hope and pray for a safe and healthy return,” she said. “Our kids’ lives matter.” 

For Heather Debby, a public school teacher and parent of pre-kindergarten twins, the decision to stick with virtual learning, for now, came down to wanting to protect grandparents who assist with child care. She also felt an ethical dilemma: If she herself feels unsafe returning to a classroom, she was reluctant to ask another teacher to do so — even if one of her daughters, who has speech delays, would benefit from in-person learning. 

Still, she’d like to see more engagement with parents and a clear explanation of the metrics and data behind district decision-making.”I feel like everything has been politicized.”

On a collision course

As parents rushed to make a decision ahead of the deadline, the union said 5,000 of its members who work with pre-k students or in cluster programs also received a survey asking whether they would consider returning to schools or request health accommodations to continue working remotely. 

Union leadership said the district has not bargained over any reopening plans, even as it has begun to publicly lay out a tentative plan that would bring some students back into buildings in the second quarter.

“Our members in this moment are overwhelmed with unsustainable remote learning schedules, and they are frightened by a lack of clarity,” union vice president Stacy Davis Gates said Friday. 

Along with advising members how to complete the survey, the union also urged its members to petition their principal and network chief to allow clerks and tech coordinators to work remotely, and to speak with parents about their concerns about in-person schooling. 

The union says they continue to meet with the district twice a week in regular bargaining sessions, but that the district’s main negotiators have not been at the table. Meanwhile, the union is still trying to make its case through the courts, with another unfair labor practice lawsuit filed against the district this week. But that process is likely to be slow and cumbersome. 

“We should not have to caravan or beg for consistency on criteria, or for inspection records on ventilation systems,” said Davis Gates.

In a statement, the district said it is “disheartened” by the union’s efforts to obstruct its reopening plan, noting hundreds of private schools in the city have been open since August. 

The district noted it has contracted with companies to conduct air quality inspections and promised to make those reports public before any in-person instruction begins. It said the union has no legal or contractual right to conduct its own air quality assessments. 

It said the union has refused to discuss a return to in-person learning and has called for reducing the amount of instructional time students receive. 

“We don’t know what the health situation will be in a couple of weeks’ time, but it would be irresponsible not to plan ahead while thousands of students miss out on valuable learning,” the statement said, adding, “We will continue to work with (the union) in the hopes they engage as productive partners and help us lift up the students and families who need our collective support.” 

Cassie Walker Burke contributed to this report.

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