#schoolsafety | Chicago Teachers Union gearing up to walk out on Wednesday

The Chicago Teachers Union is setting the stage for all teachers and other members to refuse to work in-person beginning Wednesday in conditions they deem unsafe.

The union has scheduled a vote for its more than 25,000 members on Tuesday during the day, asking if they support refusing to work in-person starting Wednesday and working virtually instead. That’s according to CTU members who listened to a virtual union town hall meeting Sunday evening.

Tuesday’s vote will be followed by a vote that afternoon by the union’s elected House of Delegates on the refusal action.

At the town hall, 80% of the 8,000 members on the call said they did not want to work in-person in Chicago Public Schools classrooms under current conditions, according to the people on the call. Classes resume on Monday after a two-week break amid the largest COVID-19 surge yet.

CPS teachers can only work remotely if it’s sanctioned by the Chicago Board of Education. And in an email to families Sunday evening, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said he stands “firmly behind the decision to protect our student’s physical and mental health and promote their academic progress by keeping CPS schools safely open for in-person learning.”

This action is likely to trigger a showdown between the union and the school district, which could lock teachers out of their remote classrooms and prevent them from teaching. This would effectively shut down the school district.

CPS and city officials are insisting schools are safe and say classes will go ahead as planned on Monday. In the email Sunday, Martinez Sunday said that “research has shown that with the extraordinary protections we’ve put in place, school is one of the safest places your children can be during the pandemic.”

Sunday’s threat of a potential walk out by teachers comes just as many parents learned about problems with the COVID-19 tests CPS gave them as winter break began. Many who gave their children the test and returned them by last week’s deadline were told they cannot be analyzed, leaving them without promised test results for the first day of class.

An email many parents received said the tests could not be processed within the required 48-hour timeframe “due to weather and holiday related shipping issues.”

CPS’ COVID tracker shows that 35.477 tests were completed over the past week, with 24,839 found to be invalid and 18% positive. But it is unclear if this is the universe of all tests received by the school system over winter break. Also, in the past, the numbers on the COVID tracker have inexplicably changed, sometimes going down with no explanation.

The school district hasn’t responded to questions from WBEZ about how many of the estimated 150,000 available tests were actually given to students on the Friday before winter break, how many results CPS has and how many positives were identified. About 300 of the 498 district-run schools received tests.

This major setback for families and the district comes amid a bitter debate about whether it is wise to have students in school with COVID-19 cases surging to unprecedented levels.

The Chicago Teachers Union has been saying for weeks it doesn’t think the school district is prepared to welcome students back. In a proposal submitted to CPS Thursday, the CTU demanded that the school district require students and staff present a negative COVID-19 test before attending in-person classes on Monday. Without that, the union was proposing a switch to remote learning for two weeks. However, there’s been no further action on that proposal by either side.

The union also wants high-quality masks for all students and staff and for individual schools to switch to all remote learning if 20% of staff are in isolation or quarantine.

The union is especially concerned that schools won’t have enough adults to safely operate because many staff may be out sick. This weekend, the 10 principals of a CPS network of schools on the Southwest Side said in an email to their network chief that at least half of them are struggling with staffing issues because of an increase in teachers coming down with COVID-19. They appealed for staffing help on Monday.

In a bargaining update on Thursday, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said the district has told the union they can’t or won’t meet these demands. “It is hard to see how CPS is going to get done the things needed to run schools safely,” Sharkey said.

But CPS CEO Martinez and the city’s top public health official say they’re sure school can resume. On Thursday, and in a letter to parents on Friday, Martinez said CPS has “thoroughly” cleaned all the schools, doubled the staff available to deal with the increase in cases, is buying two million more masks and will provide home test kits to students.

But Martinez did say he expects a lot of students will test positive for the virus and instructed parents to keep sick students home. Still, he stressed that no other large school district is moving to all remote learning for as long as two weeks.

Martinez sent several letters to parents during the winter break, adding promises to take more action to keep students safe as cases rise. In the letter on Friday, he identified what the school district considers in-school transmission — three cases in one class. This is something CPS hadn’t done previously.

When that happens, he said the school district is committed to providing testing, making vaccines accessible, enhancing cleaning and ensuring substitutes are available.

“We look forward to a healthy and successful start to 2022 when we welcome students back to school on Monday, January 3,” Martinez wrote.

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady added that children are not the driver of the most recent COVID-19 surge and that schools are safe when proper mitigations are in place.

One of the district’s big safety initiatives was the 150,000 COVID-19 tests home before winter break. Finding out that so many tests couldn’t be processed is a disappointment to some parents who hoped it would give them peace of mind about their children returning to school.

Belinda Marrero said the whole process has been confusing and difficult. She said she went to two test drop off locations on Monday — before the original Tuesday deadline — but neither would take the tests. Finally, a third place accepted them. But then she got the email Sunday that none of her test results could be processed.

“It is just very unorganized,” she said. Marrero said she still plans to send her three children to Zapata Elementary School in Little Village, but she is concerned that they will contract COVID-19. None of her children are vaccinated, which she says is a personal decision.

She said many other parents at her school did not even send back results because it was so confusing.

One school organized an at-school drop off and its parents say they got results.

Meanwhile, at least two schools tried to get testing on site on Monday, but were told by CPS that they couldn’t use an unauthorized vendor.

A company called On-Call Vital Health is instead setting up testing at a food pantry near a school. The teachers at the school, who do not want to be identified, are planning to send children there before entering the building.

Sobiya Ali, a technician at the lab, said it would be much more efficient at the school. Ali, who is a parent herself, said she doesn’t think it is safe for children, especially those who aren’t vaccinated to go into schools.

Other parents say they want to keep their children at home until those who contracted COVID-19 over the holidays are sent home or are no longer contagious.

Michelle Bautista said she plans to keep her children home at least through Wednesday. She said she wants to see how the situation is unfolding before sending her two children back to Galileo Math & Science Scholastic Academy on the Near West Side.

She said she is frustrated that all the guidance from the public health department and the school district has stayed the same as last year, despite the presence of delta and omicron variants and the spike in cases.

“I was hoping that they would ramp something up in terms of testing, better masks for students, but I haven’t seen that,” Bautista said.

She added that officials keep talking about research and percentages, but parents are thinking about if their child has a bad outcome. “It is my child’s health,” she said.

But other parents want their children in school. Ryan Griffin started the Chicago Parents Collective organization last year to push for in-person learning. He said lots of parents are upset, especially with the CTU threatening a work action again. Parents, he said, need their children in class.

Griffin said he does not understand why some parents and the Chicago Teachers Union are rejecting the guidance of the public health department.

He said he has been satisfied with how school has been going so far with masks being worn, regular testing of some students and accessible vaccines.

“We have proven in the first two quarters, even during the delta surge of a contagious, potentially serious illness, that schools were able to stay open successfully. And to be debating anything else at this point, I think is misguided. So that’s where the frustration has come in.”

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.




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