‘We need to forge forward’: Mayor Lightfoot says Chicago schools will reopen Monday despite labor troubles

Mayor Lori Lightfoot wearing a face mask that reads STAY SAFE.
Chicago officials said Friday that schools will be adequately staffed when they reopen to pre-kindergarten and special education students on Monday. (Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat)

Chicago school district leaders said they will have enough staff to reopen school buildings to students Monday and rebuked the city’s teachers union for encouraging educators to stay home. 

Schools chief Janice Jackson said at a Friday morning news conference that the portion of teachers and staff who reported to school buildings by the end of this week increased steadily to about 65% — and she believed more employees will show up Monday. 

The district expects about 6,000 students in pre-kindergarten and special education programs to return to campuses next week, with few families who said they would return late last year now opting out of in-person learning. 

Using sharp and at times emotional language, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Jackson sought to counter reports by the district’s teachers union that some buildings are not prepared to reopen and are missing personal protective equipment.

“What this all boils down to is giving families the option to make the best decisions for themselves,” Lightfoot said. “To deny parents this option is irresponsible and wrong.”

“I feel confident that our teachers will be here,” said Jackson. Still, she issued a warning for educators who didn’t return to in-person teaching next week: They would be considered absent without leave, and no longer be paid. 

The union spent the week documenting cases of educators returning to buildings and discovering empty hand sanitizer dispensers, missing or malfunctioning air purifiers and windows that wouldn’t open. 

“CPS and the mayor are saying that they desperately want to open schools, but in many buildings, they’ve done nothing to make conditions any safer — and that’s without the threat of a pandemic,” Jesse Sharkey, the union president, said in a statement Friday.

He stressed educators who have not reported to school buildings are prioritizing safety. 

How the ongoing dispute will affect next week’s return — the first time Chicago has reopened school buildings since March — will be closely watched. January started with district officials saying an agreement with the city’s teachers union was “within reach,” but the tone had shifted by Friday. Jackson criticized the union, which released a new set of demands this week, for “moving the goalposts” and reintroducing broader social demands like rent abatement.

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The Chicago Teachers Union’s new demands include a request to delay the start of in-person school, and then extend the year into the summer, so staff can receive at least one dose of the vaccine before reporting to buildings in person. 

Across the country, the reopening debate continues to unfold — with different results. New York City, the country’s largest school district, has reopened its preschools, elementary campuses, and programs for some children with disabilities after temporary shutdowns in December when community case rates surged. Meanwhile, Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second largest public school district, remains all-remote for now. 

In Illinois’ second largest school district, Elgin U-46, teachers returned to campuses this week. Buildings will reopen to elementary students on Monday, with middle and high school students having the option to return to campuses the following week. District officials there say about half of students in kindergarten through 12th grade have selected some in-person instruction.

fall overview of research from around the world concluded that transmission can occur among school-age children, but there is little evidence that schools have been a driver of transmission. Two newer studies show that where COVID-19 numbers are already low, schools didn’t seem to contribute to the virus’ spread. But where pre-existing rates were higher, the risks of school opening were higher too.

In Chicago, the union, which has been a vocal opponent of the district’s reopening plan, has continued to urge teachers who felt unsafe not to return to buildings. Instead, the union provided teachers with a letter stating their contractual right to a safe working environment to give to principals.

In guidance shared mid-week to staff expected to return to school, the union said teachers who asked for health-related accommodations but haven’t heard back yet should continue working remotely. 

Teachers who requested accommodations because they are caregivers or are concerned about health issues in their family are supposed to continue working in-person until they get a formal response from the district. In this case, the union has advised that refusing a work assignment is an option.  

The district provided employee attendance data Friday showing that more educators reported to buildings as the week progressed. About 58% of teachers who did not receive an accommodation to work from home came to campuses by Thursday. About 8% of employees who did not report to buildings did so because they failed a required daily health screener.

Lightfoot insisted Friday that claims that schools are lacking protective equipment or air purifiers are “myths,” and said elected officials and others should visit their neighborhood schools and see for themselves.

“We need to forge forward,” she said.

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Jasmine L. Thurmond, principal at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academy of Social Justice on the South Side, said about 60% of the school’s pre-kindergarten students are expected in the building on Monday. Between 30% and 40% of those in grades first through eighth are slated to return Feb. 1.

She said her building is ready with signage, hand sanitizer dispensers, Plexiglas shields, and air purifiers in each classroom.

“Remote learning has been especially difficult for our youngest learners, so bringing them in first is essential,” Thurmond said.

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