The mayor of Chicago is throwing a fit. Lori Lightfoot’s contempt for the Chicago Teachers Union is legend. Today she’s taking her frustration out in an act of collective punishment against the hundreds of thousands of children and families who rely on the city’s public schools, shutting them down completely after teachers voted to move classes online.
Chicago is suffering record-high Covid positivity rates as the Omicron variant rips through communities. While the symptoms for most may be less severe than those brought on by Alpha or Delta variants, public health facilities remain at a breaking point caring for the still large numbers of severe cases.
And the Omicron variant has not been around long enough to assess its risks to children for “long covid,” the lasting headaches, fatigue, heart conditions, and brain damage that medical science is still working to understand.
While nearby school districts delayed reopening schools following the winter break, Chicago schools returned to a mess, with staffing shortages, rodent-infested classrooms, and families left to their own devices to determine whether to send children back to crowded cafeterias or find some last-minute child care.
Some parents in the neighborhood where my child goes to CPS kindergarten expressed a sense of resignation that it could only be a matter of time before their kids would get Covid and that they simply hoped they’d be among the lucky ones to avoid severe or lifelong symptoms. But gambling with our children’s health—and a utilitarian indifference to the most vulnerable immunocompromised or working-class students without ready alternative day care—is not a new normal any of us should accept.
On Tuesday, 88 percent of Chicago Teachers Union delegates voted to switch from in-person instruction to remote learning and then conducted a vote across the union’s membership that confirmed the decision, with 73 percent of teachers choosing to suspend in-person instruction.
The mayor (who didn’t close schools in the spring of 2020 either but was overridden by a statewide closure order) and the public schools CEO (who refused to implement vaccinations at schools when the jab became available for the youngest students in November) responded with a baffling and infuriating press conference. Despite speaking until 10 pm on a school night, they not only refused to say whether they would in fact be closing schools (as they’d threatened to do in hasty mass texts and emails to CPS families) but complained bitterly, as though they themselves were the main victims in the situation.
As a fellow parent at my child’s school pointed out to me, even if Omicron hadn’t emerged, CPS could have anticipated from the beginning of the school year that the winter break would increase the risk of Covid in schools due to family gatherings and travel. They should have made plans and communicated clearly months ago to protect faculty, staff, and students with any number of mitigations, like requiring negative covid tests upon return or increasing testing in schools.
While CPS bungled its own thrown-together attempt to get communities with the highest Covid numbers to test at home, CTU conducted long-planned drive-up testing and sought negotiation with administration over other measures.
Now, the mayor (who handed millions of dollars in federal Covid-relief funding that might be really useful right now to Chicago’s murderous police) and the public school CEO (who is the highest paid in CPS history despite having zero classroom credentials or experience) are locking teachers out instead of leading. Their frantic messaging to parents petulantly paints the teachers union as refusing to come to work, but CPS has preemptively denied teachers access to the online learning platforms they’d planned to use to continue instruction.
This probable unfair labor practice mirrors the insulting lack of honesty or help we’re getting from our elected officials on a federal level. The CDC and White House under Biden are repeating the disastrous policy of putting the economy ahead of public health, while sneering at the unvaccinated. But even if vaccines and masks had never become a political target of the right in the United States, the global vaccine apartheid this administration participates in allows the virus to continue mutating and ravaging lives.
Chicago’s teachers show us where our only hope lies. It’s up to us—workers, parents, neighbors—to come together and forge solutions that embrace the value of the Black, brown, and under-resourced communities most deeply afflicted by the Covid crisis. We keep us safe.