On Monday, January 3rd, thousands of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students and staff returned to school buildings to resume in-person instruction following winter break. By Tuesday night, 73% of Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members voted electronically to work remotely from home for two weeks beginning Wednesday January 5th, unless CPS agrees to provide reasonable safety measures, including:comprehensive COVID testing for students, consistent contact tracing, and enforceable metrics to shift schools to remote learning during a spike in COVID cases. CTU’s vote for remote work action is a response to the Omicron variant that is buckling the nation’s hospital system and doing a lot of damage here in Chicago—indeed,Cook County is reportedly sending trailers to hospitals to help transport bodies to the morgue.
CPS responded to CTU’s vote to take action by telling parents that school was canceled on Wednesday—and by midnight, nearly all teachers, clinicians, and staff were immediately locked out from their CPS accounts, absurdly unable to even check our email. This hateful and petty response by CPS exposes a discomforting truth: school district leaders and Mayor Lori Lightfoot would rather close down schools and disrupt learning entirely than seriously consider implementing CTU’s demands for basic safety.
On Saturday, CTU leadership went public with a plan—endorsed by the union’s House of Delegates—that would return teachers to school buildings this week to resume remote instruction alongside various safety measures, with a possible return to in-person instruction for students on January 18. At the time of writing Lightfoot has rejected this plan with CPS CEO Pedro Martinez releasing an over-the-top, chest-beating statement that “we will not relent.”
With the lockout of teachers expected to continue on Monday, and with negotiations stalled, this week the struggle to have a safe return to in-person schooling amidst the raging Omicron variant is truly a life or death struggle. Chicago teachers will need solidarity and community support to defeat CPS and Lightfoot—and the health of all in Chicago depends on it.
Too Little, Too Late from CPS
As COVID rates surged in the final days of December 2021, it became painfully obvious that Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez had no plan for a safe return to school buildings on January 3rd. With the Omicron variant raging through Chicago’s most vulnerable communities, hundreds of parents and guardians attempted to complete at-home COVID test kits sent home before break at some schools (but not all!). A great deal of these tests were simply returned by the post office, unopened. Local news outlets circulated alarming photos of the test kits stacked in piles and falling onto the ground at a limited number of drop off locations. CPS’s shameful failure to implement comprehensive student testing caused many parents to receive inconclusive test results or no results at all in time to prepare to send their students back into the school buildings.
Unsurprisingly, many teachers and students were unable to return to school in person last Monday due to 1. being sick with COVID, 2. quarantining due to exposure to COVID, or 3. choosing to stay home for fear of immediate COVID exposure in the schools. At my school, for example, roughly 30 percent of my coworkers were unable to report to work in person while only 50 percent of students attended school. By Tuesday, student attendance had dropped to 44 percent.
This shortage of staffing and students (and an incredibly high number of staff testing positive for COVID) led 93 percent of staff in my building to express their support for working remotely on Wednesday in a staff generated survey. While the past two school years have been a turbulent time where we have often disagreed on what to do next, the utter disregard for our safety shown by CPS this week has united my school building in collective action.
A Reckless Return to Schools
To be clear, CPS has had every opportunity to avoid this week’s lockout disaster. CTU advocated for essentially the same safety mitigations during the previous school year and achieved a safety agreement (MOU) with CPS before the majority of teachers re-entered buildings last spring. But the MOU expired at the end of last school year. When CPS reopened all its doors this fall they did so while choosing to rollback many of last year’s mitigations including an end to building screeners, temperature checks, and the 10% citywide positivity metric that would shift the entire school district to remote learning during a surge.
On Wednesday, CTU members across the city woke up and attempted to teach remotely only to learn that they too were locked out of their email accounts and Google Classrooms. Outraged and emboldened teachers held morning union meetings to support our colleagues and headed into the streets for a large and energetic car caravan for safety.
After the lockout began, an indignant Lori Lightfoot held a live press conference where she excoriated CTU for engaging in an “illegal work stoppage” and threatening that teachers attempting to safely teach from home would not be paid. Lightfoot went on to describe CTU’s demand for an opt-out model of COVID testing for students as an attack on parent’s rights to refuse “quasi-medical” procedures on children. Nevermind that many other large school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, began the school year with a comprehensive safety agreement that is more or less identical to what CTU is demanding
During this same press conference, Dr. Allison Arwady, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health gave her opinion on student mask requirements stating that she does not believe students need KN95 masks to be safe in school. A growing body of evidence suggests, however, that Arwady is wrong and that KN95s and N95 respirators offer the highest levels of protection. What’s more, Arwady, who is widely considered to be Lightfoot’s rubber stamp, happens to be the decision-maker who will decide whether to grant a permit for a hazardous industrial metal shredder to operate blocks away from my school—so you’ll forgive me if I have some hesitations about trusting her commitment to protect our health.
Also contributing to the media spectacle was CPS CEO Pedro Martinez, whose flip-flopping elicited the ire of the Chicago Principals Association, who later published a letter stating that principals felt blindsided by the CEO’s mixed messages and whiplash when CPS completely changed course throughout negotiations this week. And, to make matters worse, on Friday January 7th, news broke that Lightfoot had actually failed to accept an offer of additional COVID tests, masks, and resources for vaccination clinics from Governor J.B. Pritzker weeks ago.
The outrageous public communications and callus actions of Lightfoot, Arwady, and Martinez illustrate that they simply do not have the best interests of students and their families at heart.
A school year like no other
The beginning of the 2021 – 2022 school year was touted by many elected leaders as a return to normalcy that would provide much needed relief to families and students following more than one year of remote learning and COVID disruptions. And yet, the very same politicians and education leaders who called for the return to school as usual were completely unwilling to provide any of the resources needed to support a safe learning and working environment.
Instead of devoting billions of available federal COVID relief dollars to increased mental health services, vaccinations, and high quality medical masks for school communities, Lightfoot incredibly redirected millions of federal funds into the Chicago Police Department. And she did this in spite of the fact that an increasing number of Local School Councils voted to remove CPD school resource officers from their campuses this fall.
The overwhelming challenges teachers are facing have many of us wondering how this school year is somehow even harder than last year. What teachers and our students needed most this fall was rest, support, and the opportunity to think creatively about how we could rebuild our schools into something more humane than they were before. The reckless push to return to pre-pandemic school norms denied us that chance.
Rejection of a reasonable solution
Lightfoot and Martinez’s rejection of CTUs proposal reflects how their vindictiveness towards the union and commitment to the business-friendly notion of “returning to normal” outweighs their concerns for the safety of CPS students and the broader Chicago community.
The CTU plan released on January 8th would lay out teachers returning on Monday in order to assist students with receiving computers needed for remote learning and provide time for parents to sign up for COVID testing and pick up at-home test kits. Teachers who are the parents of CPS students would have the option to teach remotely from home while non-parents would teach remotely from school buildings. Then remote instruction would continue until the 18th in which—assuming some flattening of the Omicron curve—in-person schooling would resume. The plan includes an opt-out testing plan that would provide regular randomized screening in the schools, and metrics—used previously—that would trigger return to remote learning on a school by school basis based on changes in positive test results. Additionally it importantly provides safeguards to protect teachers who took part in the remote work action from retaliation from CPS and make-up days for lost instruction.
Lightfoot’s response to this reasonable ask has been reckless defiance. Indeed, she continues to insist upon the delusional talking point that “schools are the safest place for our children” despite the fact the Illinois Department of Public Health has found that schools are the potential transmission location of 42 percent of all COVID cases!
At the time of writing Lighfoot has presented no other alternative besides the untenable status quo that reels under the waves of Omicron. Remote instruction presents many challenges for teachers, students, and parents alike, however taking measures to flatten the curve for two weeks is a needed measure for the vaccine-resistant Omicron. The fact that so many schools reported high levels of staff and students being unable to report to school buildings last Monday shows that we couldn’t reopen schools for in-person instruction regardless of CTU member’s vote to authorize remote action.
We can defeat the lockout with solidarity
Despite the incredible challenges facing CPS teachers and staff, the #LoriLockout will not deter us from fighting for the safe schools our students deserve. Our bosses locked us out to scare and divide us, but these attacks are having the opposite effect—that of bringing staff in many schools closer together.
As the lockout enters into a second school week today, CTU members are preparing to escalate our remote work action by staging community teach outs and car caravans that will culminate with a massive caravan outside City Hall at noon. To be sure, with Lightfoot continuing to isolate herself by refusing to bargain in good faith, CTU members will need the continued, vocal support of CPS parents and community leaders to help ensure that a deal can be reached before Chicago’s students miss out on even more essential instruction and school services.
Over the past six days, I have watched my school colleagues step up to host early-morning Zoom meetings, draft a letter to parents, volunteer to call and text coworkers who are currently sick with COVID, and collaborate with other neighborhood schools on a website with remote learning resources for our students. On Friday evening, teachers from multiple schools in the Southeast Side community hosted a virtual town hall for parents that drew over 100 attendees.
We know that when CTU takes on CPS, our fight is never just about schools in Chicago and CTU members are ready to be a fighting example for all workers facing the pressure to return to unsafe workplaces during this phase of the ongoing pandemic. Collective action, like our fight here in Chicago, is what it is going to take for any real safety to be wrenched from the hands of those in power.