Front-line Chicago school administrators say they still lack protective equipment, as national supply grab continues

Administrators handing out meals and tech devices to families at Chicago schools say they still lack sufficient protective gear, even as many meet the public daily. 

That’s according to responses from 350 principals and assistant principals to a survey conducted April 10-13 by the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, nearly four weeks into meal distribution. Schools became Chicago’s meal distribution centers after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker closed school buildings statewide as part of a stay-at-home order.

The group asked whether principals had access to masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer, as well as physical tools like signs and spacing markers to enforce recommendations on social distancing.

More than 90% of administrators responded that they hadn’t received gloves or masks from Chicago Public Schools in early April. In addition, 78% of principals and assistant principals said the district hadn’t provided them hand sanitizer. 

The complaints echo front-line workers throughout the country who have warned about insufficient supplies of protective equipment. Pritzker is among the governors who have criticized the federal government for failing to help states procure the supplies they need, putting state governments in the position of bidding against each other.

More than 200 Chicago schools are handing out meals to needy families every weekday. School administrators, security guards, and kitchen workers who receive extra pay for the duty are distributing the grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches. The district is also coordinating an ambitious program to lend 115,000 Chromebooks, iPads, and other technological devices to students from low-income families. 

“I have never felt more dispensable in my entire professional life,” one administrator noted on the survey, which did not publish respondents’ names. “I have underlying medical conditions. It feels like CPS truly doesn’t care if I get sick, as long as they say they got out technology to students.”

Custodial and security staff also have had trouble consistently getting protective equipment such as gloves, hand sanitizer, and masks, said Service Employees International Union Local 73 Director Science Meles.

In a statement, Chicago Public Schools officials said they began distributing face coverings last week, after the survey was taken and in response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidance. But the district said that it received cloth face coverings to distribute only this week. 

“The district remains fully committed to supporting principals while they are performing this critically important work, whether they are working from home or in their school building,” spokesperson Emily Bolton said in a statement. 

Those workers have raised concerns about adequate protective equipment, safety information, and delays on bonuses for working in hazardous conditions. 

The supply problems varied by school, according to the survey. In some cases, principals said they received protective equipment from Aramark, one of the district’s two cleaning contractors. But assistant principals who have also been called upon to staff schools reported not receiving personal protective gear. Some principals said they received only a one-time-use mask, or none at all. 

The vast majority of administrators responding said the district didn’t provide signs, spacing markers, or barriers and shields. 

Troy LaRaviere, head of the principals association, told the school board Wednesday that the district should require administrators who are at high risk for medical complications if they catch COVID-19 to work from home. About 25% of 575 school administrators who replied to an earlier association survey in March said they had health conditions that put them at risk.

“This lack of protection is happening,” he said. 

LaRaviere also said principals distributing devices were not slated to receive the additional pay for staffing schools during the closings. 

In a petition posted on its website, the principals association called for more personal safety equipment, more personnel to support schools distributing devices, and a requirement that high-risk administrators work from home. 

The district said it had provided detailed device distribution guidance on April 2, which included a form for requesting additional support personnel. 

Chicago principals and assistant principals are not represented by the city’s teachers’ union. Some are members of the association.

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