Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot says schools could reopen in the fall; teachers union disagrees

A Carl Schurz High School staffer distributes Google Chromebooks to Chicago students in April as they transition to online classes. (Patrick Gorski/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Friday that schools could reopen in the fall, but advised people to prepare for them to look different. 

“Schools are more than just a place of learning,” she said at a press conference. “They’re a place of comfort and safety, where children are fed, and they are nurtured. We need that school structure, it is important to the health and well being of our children.”

The mayor had told the Chicago Sun-Times earlier on Friday that her goal was a fall reopening. Asked later about her comments, she told reporters that students need structure, but that she will continue to listen to the science before making a decision.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said that districts should prepare for the possibility that remote learning could extend into the fall, depending on COVID-19 caseloads and the rate of decline. 

“We all want very badly for schools to open,” he said at his daily news briefing Friday, “and you’ve got to do planning for reopening in the fall.” But, he added, “none of us knows what the future holds.”

Lightfoot said Friday that there are “different options” on the table. “Having alternate days. Kind of a platoon circumstance. Really limiting the number of kids that are in a classroom at any given time. We’re looking at a range of different options,” she told the newspaper.

The mayor said that student and staff safety was top of mind, but that students “needed” their teachers.

In an email to parents, schools chief Janice Jackson said that the district was setting up contingency plans for the fall, although the hope was that schools “open on time and at full capacity.” One scenario that had been floated by the state, she wrote, was having students attend schools on alternate days, presumably to have fewer children in a building at one time. Summer school, she announced, will be held virtually.

“We are working to ensure we are prepared for whatever course of action our local and state leaders and health officials determine is safe and responsive to the needs of our students, staff, and families,” she wrote.

In a press call Friday, the Chicago Teachers Union raised concerns about Lightfoot’s comments and said neither she nor the district had discussed plans for a fall return to schools with the union. 

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“Kids do need their teachers, kids also need to be healthy and safe,” union President Jesse Sharkey said. The mayor may be making promises to sound reassuring, he said, but without a promise of changes like hand-washing stations and increased cleaning staff, conversations about returning to school were premature. 

In response to the union, Lightfoot said that she was just articulating a goal. “Of course, it’s going to be guided by science; it’s going to be based upon feedback from the entire school community, which of course includes the teachers.”

During her daily press conference, the mayor unveiled a five-phase plan for reopening the city’s economy, similar to a plan detailed earlier in the week by the governor. 

According to Lightfoot’s plan, the city has already transitioned from phase one, a strict stay-at-home order, to a second phase where essential workers go to work and residents are allowed to go outside wearing masks. The third phase involves a cautious reopening where non-essential businesses and workers can go back to work. To enter that phase, Chicago must have more than 14 days of decline in coronavirus cases.

Earlier in the week, the state’s schools superintendent, Carmen Ayala, said districts might reopen schools in the fall then have to close them again, and suggested districts prepare for intermittent closures until a COVID-19 vaccine is discovered.

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