Chicago schools chief sticks with reopening campuses, despite broad pushback

Masked teacher and masked student face each other across a semicircular desk in a classroom.
A teacher at Jordan Community School on Chicago’s Far North Side works with a preschool student on Jan. 15, 2021. (Mila Koumpilova, Chalkbeat)

The first week of reopened classrooms in Chicago brought a teacher sick-out, city aldermen interrogations of school officials, and quarantines of staff and students — but schools chief Janice Jackson said she remains resolved to keep school buildings open. 

Chicago schools will not markedly change course, Jackson said, as the district moves toward 70,000 more elementary students and their teachers returning to school buildings by Feb. 1. 

The district has not released final numbers on student attendance, employees who called in sick Friday to protest the reopening, or school-based COVID cases from this week. Jackson said the district would update its coronavirus tracker and that school employees were prepared for reopening campuses and rolled out safety protocols as planned.

“This week has only increased my confidence in reopening,” she said Friday at Jordan Community School, on Chicago’s Far North Side. “Our team has done an extraordinary job accounting for every scenario.”

As Jackson spoke with reporters, teachers union leaders and supporters staged a car caravan from Union Park on the Near West Side to protest the reopening and the lockout of about 100 educators who declined to report to work in person. Although some teachers encouraged colleagues to call in sick in solidarity, the district said employee attendance remained “relatively consistent” Friday. 

Union President Jesse Sharkey said the union will push harder against the district’s plan, which the union deems unsafe, poorly timed, and unevenly executed. But he also told teachers that the union has had “better conversations” with the district during negotiations this week and still aims to reach an agreement. 

Students, clergy and parent groups protested Friday to support the union’s message.

Reports have circulated of coronavirus cases, including at least two students, at several schools. The district has not confirmed most of these cases yet, but it did say eight employees at McCutcheon Elementary are in quarantine after two tested positive for the virus, and it is not ruling out school-based transmission. 

Speaking Friday at a hastily called school board meeting, McCutcheon school council representative Wilma Pittman criticized the decision to allow children onto the campus Monday after staff cases had been identified and asked the board to delay reopening until more widespread vaccine is available. 

“We have to give communities and parents transparency,” she said. “Without that, it’s not going to work.” 

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But Jackson said schools notified those who need to quarantine as soon as a case was confirmed and informed school communities next. 

When asked under what circumstances the district would close a school, Jackson said only that the district would decide in close consultation with the city’s health department. No schools have closed this week. 

Early Friday afternoon the district’s online COVID tracker listed 26 employee and zero student cases. Some cases that had been reported to school communities had not yet been logged.

Noting president-elect Joe Biden has deemed reopening schools a key priority, Jackson said the district will continue talking with the union about an agreement but would not accept conditions such as waiting for employees to be vaccinated first. 

“The time is now,” she said. 

By Friday, more than 60 out of about 500 Local School Councils — elected bodies of parents, community representatives, teachers, and students on Chicago campuses — had sent letters asking the district to delay reopening plans until neighborhood-level COVID-19 rates dropped and the district could answer more parent questions. The letters are advisory, as councils have no authority over reopening.

But by week’s end some conversations took on a different tone, with some parents saying they were put off by negativity from the union. Others described the feeling that they were being labeled “monsters” for speaking in favor of reopening school buildings in their council meetings.

“We’re being bullied to sign resolutions to shelve in-person learning,” said Ryan Griffin, the parent of a first grader who spoke at Friday’s board meeting. The choice has been very difficult but about 77,000 parents said they wanted to send their children back to school, he said. “How do we ignore our own public health officials and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Tell me — how?”

Others in public comment and in school council meetings said that they wanted to see how the city’s vaccine plans shaped up, in the hopes that teachers would take priority in the next phase that the governor said Friday will start Jan. 25. 

At Chappell Elementary on the Far North Side, several parents urged the school council to write a letter urging specific improvements in operations — for example, more testing of students and teachers, additional air purifiers, or higher teacher priority in receiving vaccines.

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Speaking in front of the school board Friday, parent Katherine Rose, a substitute teacher, urged members — who are appointed by the mayor — to consider scaling back plans to bring back K-8 students and narrow the focus on kindergarten through third grades, amid so much unrest among teachers. “Let’s focus on bringing schools back in a manner that is possible,” she said.

At Jordan Community School, which serves a predominantly Latino and Black student body, 19 of 58 pre-kindergarten students attended in-person instruction this week. Principal Gilberto Piedrahita said every teacher and teaching assistant slated to report to work in the building did so; the first week has gone smoothly, with no visits so far to the school’s spacious “care room,” for students showing symptoms of illness.

In one classroom Friday, a teacher worked one-on-one with a boy wearing a shark mask, praising him as he described his snowman drawing to her. Several other students sat at spaced-out desks with Legos and other toys. 

All were wearing their masks. Still, even in the brief time reporters were allowed to observe the classroom, a few moments illustrated the challenges of social distancing in preschool: Students briefly bunched up to peek at an arriving lunch cart. A teacher, armed with disinfectant spray, stood close to students as she collected some materials from them.

The principal said he and his staff worry about adequately serving virtual learners, those who log in to participate remotely in a portion of the in-person instruction — a scenario some teachers have argued is bound to shortchange students learning remotely. But, he said, “The simultaneous instruction is going much better than the teachers and I anticipated.”

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