Safe Return or No Return

Caitlin Quinn and Dana Blanchard

A Chicago teacher describes the background to the current struggle against the mayor’s attempts to reopen schools as the pandemic rages.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) are beginning a phased school reopening this week despite overwhelming evidence that this will endanger the health and safety of hundreds of educators, students, and their families. Why the push to reopen schools when so many families are against it? What are the stakes in the fight between Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union?  What is the shape of the resistance to reopening, and how can people get involved? 

The Current Situation

The push to reopen schools seems especially reckless with the possibility of a safe reopening just months away. Chicago’s Covid-19 vaccine rollouts have just begun, and many experts estimate that by summer or fall there will be widespread vaccinations in the general population. Vaccination will come even earlier for teachers and education staff who are in line to get the vaccine in the next round in February or March.  

Alongside this positive news about the vaccination plans there is also disheartening news about the current spread of Covid-19. With a new, more contagious mutation already spreading in areas of the country and with many facing prolonged time indoors due to winter cold, experts warn that the darkest days of the virus are still ahead. Chicago currently has a 10.5 percent positivity rate and over a thousand new cases a day. The numbers do not support reopening schools

This fall marks a one-year anniversary of the historic CTU strike that won a number of key social justice demands. During the Covid-19 crisis Chicago has also experienced a series of political and social upheavals. Following a summer filled with uprisings against police brutality, the city is currently reeling over the Chicago police raid and assault against Anjanette Young and its scandalous cover-up. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is embattled on several fronts. Far from her campaign promises to work with activists to chart a more progressive future for Chicago, Lightfoot has instead proceeded to trample social justice appeals and engage in a level of vindictive political pettiness that might even exceed that of previous mayor Rahm Emmanual. 

In the midst of this situation, Lightfoot and her hand-picked board of education are pushing full steam ahead with a plan to reopen elementary schools for in-person teaching and learning. In opposition to this plan, the Chicago Teachers Union and allies are organizing resistance, including thirty-three of the city’s fifty alderpeople who signed on to a letter stating they are “deeply concerned” about CPS’s reopening plans and are skeptical that the plan is safe or addresses equity and racial justice concerns.  

Only 37 percent of CPS students have opted for in-person learning and these students are disproportionately from more affluent white families. This speaks volumes about who Lightfoot is really prioritizing in Chicago. This is not about equity or supporting students who need the services an in-person school might be able to provide. This is a calculated move to appease a politically powerful base. Reopening schools will also appease those business interests arguing that we need to reopen the economy and “get back to normal” as soon as possible. 

But it is also about trying to break the power of Lightfoot’s most significant foe in Chicago: the CTU. Since the most recent teachers’ strike in October 2019 Lightfoot has looked for opportunities to take down CTU whenever she can, and if she can force teachers and staff back into schools against their will it will be a huge win for her. At every turn CTU has had to battle Lightfoot and the board of education for a safe and rational approach to schooling under a pandemic. The reality that Lightfoot’s turf war with CTU could endanger hundreds of lives just to score political points is the pinnacle of pettiness. 

Pre-kindergarten and cluster special education teachers were told to return to buildings on January 4th. Some of their students are due to return this week, when educators will be expected to provide “simultaneous teaching” from their classrooms to both in-person and remote students. Kindergarten through eighth-grade teachers have been told to report to school buildings January 25, with their in-person students and “simultaneous teaching” beginning February 1 either two or four days a week, depending on enrollment. 

CPS sent an email to principals in late December with a form template to send to staff who don’t show up in person and instructions to initiate disciplinary process for tenured teachers and intiatite a firing process for untenured teachers. This strategy of threatening teachers and staff and making them feel isolated and afraid is part of the larger divide-and-conquer strategy behind having a piecemeal rollout for reopening. 

Nonetheless many teachers faced down this threat by refusing to return. On the official first day back, 40 percent of teachers refused to reenter buildings. Others taught just outside their schools, in Chicago winter weather, in protest. 

The reality that Lightfoot’s turf war with CTU could endanger hundreds of lives just to score political points is the pinnacle of pettiness.

The Road to Reopening

CPS announced their reopening plan in mid-November, at the same time that the city of Chicago was reporting record-breaking daily case counts and the highest death counts since the spring. The previous metrics that CPS has provided over the summer (a 5 percent positivity rate) had long been surpassed, as the city’s positivity rate lingered around 15 percent. Public schools officials repeated the proven falsehoods that schools are not places of spread and that children are not susceptible to transmitting or spreading the virus. CPS also switched their metric from positivity rate to doubling rate, a measure that is not only intentionally difficult to understand, but that is also a measure of increase of spread. In other words, even with record rates in November, CPS was not saying that the situation would need to get better in order for schools to reopen, just that it would need to be getting worse at a less-bad rate.

A lot of frantic activity ensued over the next month: 

  • CPS ran a campaign, which they said was focused on equity, in which they encouraged parents to sign their kids up for hybrid learning. It included language like, “If you’re on the fence, choose hybrid. You can always change your mind to go back to remote learning later.” 
  • Individual schools tried to figure out reopening plans with minimal guidance and lots of unanswered questions. 
  • Parents tried to sift through all of the information and make a choice.
  • Teachers tried to figure out how to keep themselves and their families safe.

In addition to their misinformation campaign to families, CPS sent out surveys for all staff to fill out, which, for many teachers, provided no real options. They encouraged people to apply for accommodations if they have a disability, if they’re in a high-risk category for Covid, if they live with someone who is high-risk, or if they need help with child care. One-third of teachers in the first wave requested accommodations for one of these categories, but the majority of them were rejected. Others were “approved” but not for the accommodation they requested. One teacher requested a telework accommodation because of his asthma. In response, CPS offered him a plastic shield to wear as PPE.

This has left thousands of teachers facing a seemingly impossible decision between their safety and their careers: follow orders and risk their lives, or apply to take an unpaid leave without health insurance or job protection.  

Some of CPS’s safety measures border on the absurd

Meanwhile, Covid has continued to ravage communities. In those hit hardest, parents overwhelmingly opted to remain remote. While 67 percent of white parents chose hybrid learning, only about 31 percent of Latinx parents, 33 percent of Black parents, and 33 percent of Asian parents chose hybrid. In each other subgroup, including bilingual students, students with IEPs, students in temporary living situations (homeless students), and low-income students, parents opted in at roughly the same rate (around 33 percent). Because of the segregation of the city, this means that some schools in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods expect a majority of students to return, other schools have classes with only a few students returning, and some classes have no students returning—but are still forcing those teachers to return to teach remote classes from the school.

And while CPS has demanded that the entire district pivot toward teaching a group of students who are disproportionately white and higher-income, the remote instruction that the majority of parents chose to continue with will suffer. Some teachers plan to try to maintain their best remote learning practices by requiring in-person students to login to remote learning from the school building. In either event, dividing teachers’ instructional focus will lead to a worse educational experience for all students. 

The Fight against Reopening

What is clear by now is that CPS does not care about the health and safety of students, teachers, or staff—or about equity. 

Since the reopening announcement, CTU has attempted to respond on multiple fronts. First, they took the battle to the state labor court to try to block the reopening plan on the basis that CPS has not bargained with them in good faith around their work conditions. Unfortunately this effort failed. 

Since the start of the pandemic CTU has been active in organizing demonstrations with the Right to Recovery coalition and other groups demanding more support for those struggling during this crisis. The fall CTU has organized several demonstrations and press conferences against the plan, reiterating to the public their demands for a safe and equitable reopening, which CPS has not met.  CTU has also been working with local school councils (LSCs) across Chicago to organize against the reopening plans. Within CTU there has been discussion of building larger mobilizations and demonstrations as well as the possibility of other escalating work actions. 

In the middle of all this organizing CTU has also been trying to support members who are anxious and scared about having to return to school and give space to members at schools to organize a plan of action that makes sense for their workplace. 

By demanding teachers report back in staggered groups, CPS is trying to keep people feeling atomized and avoid a union-wide fightback. This is exactly why teachers and staff, even those who are not being asked to report to school buildings in person now, need to stick together. Other CTU members need to be ready to show up for each other if CPS does try to retaliate. 

This kind of solidarity has worked before. Some clerks have disobeyed CPS’s orders to work from school buildings three days a week. None have been fired, and all have been paid (those who were at first denied pay have since been paid back). In many schools teachers wrote collective letters to admin asking them to honor the arbitrator’s ruling to allow clerks to work from home 4 days a week. This is the power of the union fighting together and teachers and staff showing solidarity across grade levels and job descriptions. 

But CTU cannot be in this fight alone. Many LSCs, composed of family and community members, have taken a stand against reopening. Chicago community members need to support CTU and stand with teachers and staff on their demands that schools cannot reopen until it is safe. Solidarity beyond CTU will be essential in winning this fight. 

This struggle is happening in the midst of national resistance to reopening schools being organized by teachers and staff across the country. The teacher uprisings and strikes of 2018–19 laid the groundwork for a national resistance to unsafe school reopening plans that put educator and student lives at risk. In the context of a national teacher shortage many educators are feeling more emboldened than ever to take action in their schools. With more than a quarter of public school teachers contemplating leaving the profession this year, according to a recent national survey, can school districts really afford to fire teachers en masse?  

Here are a few examples of the struggle against unsafe school reopenings from around the country:

It is clear the fight in Chicago is part of a larger fight for safe and equitable schools in a time of crisis across the country. This fight will require teachers taking actions like refusing to enter buildings en masse, to defend against the retaliation that is certain, and will have to have community solidarity. It’s about health and safety and also about the labor power of teachers and their ability to win the schools that students and families deserve coming out of this crisis.

Caitlin Quinn is a teacher in Chicago.

Dana Blanchard is a member of the Rampant editorial collective.