Half of Chicago pre-K, special ed teachers report back to campuses

School chief Janice Jackson standing by a microphone.
File photo shows Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson and district staff. On Tuesday, Jackson said the district is staying the course to reopen school campuses gradually this month. (Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat)

Half of the Chicago Public Schools pre-kindergarten and special education teachers and about 70% of support staff who were expected to return to school buildings Monday reported to work, district officials said Tuesday. 

Schools chief Janice Jackson called the turnout significant given what she described as pressure from the district’s teachers union not to return to work — and she said she believes more employees will start coming to school buildings in the coming days. 

But as the district gears up to resume in-person instruction for pre-K and some special education students next Monday, it is not clear whether it will have enough staff to gradually reopen campuses as planned. The district asked teachers to return to school buildings a week before students do to prepare for the transition as they continue learning remotely this week.

How the district’s first week of reopening goes could impact broader plans. The bulk of K-8 educators and teachers are slated to return later this month. 

Jackson said teachers and other employees who refuse to show up will face unspecified escalating consequences. The district said last week it had granted leave or permission to work remotely to about 12% of roughly 7,000 educators and staff slated to return this week, and will review more applications. 

“At the end of the day, it serves no one in the district to fire teachers,” Jackson said, but she did not rule out that possibility.

On Monday, roughly 60% of 4,419 teachers and other staff who were expected to return to district campuses swiped in, according to preliminary district data. About 8% of teachers and support staff, or about 350 employees, failed a required health screening and were not permitted in school buildings.  

Jackson insisted a written accord on reopening with the teachers union is within reach, with broad agreement on safety issues such as personal protective equipment, testing, and school-based safety committees that the union proposed forming.

In a statement, Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates denied Jackson’s claim. 

“We are not close on agreements,” she said. “The mayor’s team at CPS has chosen not to bargain with us, and instead, to unilaterally impose.” 

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Hours earlier at a separate press conference, union leaders painted a picture of ongoing deep disagreement over the district’s reopening plan and said they expect more teachers to defy the district’s request to return requests to schools. 

The union call included remarks from Troy LaRaviere, the head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, who sharply criticized the district plan and said the city’s principals want more input in how and when Chicago reopens school buildings. 

Staffing is a major concern among the group’s members, LaRaviere said, citing a Monday survey of 300 principals and assistant principals that showed only 22% felt they had enough staff to reopen safely. 

Among the association’s recommendations: that the district involve principals more directly in drafting plans and that Chicago Public Schools create and assign dedicated groups of substitutes to schools to help fill in for staff and assist with administrative duties. 

LaRaviere described a situation at one school where multiple pre-kindergarten students have signaled an intent to return, but both pre-K teachers have received accommodations that allow them to work from home. 

Meanwhile, a principal at another unnamed school is trying to justify following district guidance that all teachers without accommodations report to campus even though all of its students have said they will continue to learn remotely. 

“Principals are left to figure out how to make this work,” he said. 

Attitudes among school leaders vary, he added, with some supporting the plan and others with deep criticisms. “Principals are not a monolith. For the most part, you have a big group of folks in the middle who are very frustrated and upset but not quite frustrated or upset enough to risk their employment.”

In her remarks Tuesday morning, Jackson rejected LaRaviere’s argument that the district has not kept principals in the loop, but instead has been working closely with school leaders. 

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