Chicago’s teachers union called Wednesday for an all-remote start to the school year, saying the district’s Black and Latino students — who make up the majority of enrollment — are most likely to be impacted if the coronavirus pandemic worsens.
The union’s announcement Wednesday night preempts the mayor’s office, which is expected to release a tentative reopening plan in tandem with the school district later in the week.
Both Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson have said they support a return to in-person learning if health officials give them the green light, and the district has surveyed parents on multiple scenarios that blend in-person and remote learning.
But the union questioned Wednesday whether safe and effective in-person learning can happen under strict social distancing guidelines, which would prevent small group instruction or situations where a teacher comforted a child.
“There is simply no way to guarantee safety for in-school learning during an out-of-control pandemic—and that means we must revert to remote learning until the spread of this virus is contained,” said President Jesse Sharkey in a statement.
COVID-19 cases, he said, were “soaring instead of dissipating.” Earlier in the day, health officials announced 1,187 new cases of COVID-19 across the state, and the mayor said she might consider rolling back parts of her reopening plan if the number of Chicago cases continues to rise.
Michael Passman, a spokesman for Chicago Public Schools, said Wednesday night that the city planned to introduce a “preliminary framework” this week in an effort to get feedback from parents, students, and educators. The final decision about whether students would return to in-person learning won’t happen until closer to the start of school when there’s a clearer assessment of the public health situation.
The first day of school in Chicago is scheduled for Sept. 8.
“The health and safety of our students and staff is paramount, and our planning for the fall will be guided by the best available data and guidance from state and local health officials,” he said in a statement. “We know that families and staff are eager to learn more about the coming school year, and we appreciate that there are a range of needs and views that are valid and must be considered.”
Union leaders had said earlier that they supported a return to in-person learning under certain conditions, a list that included adequate personal protective equipment, safe social distancing strategies, school cleaning protocols, regular rapid testing for COVID-19, access to health professionals onsite, and job protections for workers who may become ill.
How far the union will be willing to go and whether it could start rallying members for another strike over the issue will be something to watch. In a town hall with members Tuesday night, union leaders said the district had not been “forthcoming” about its tentative plans.
Several educators expressed concerns about underlying health conditions such as asthma that put them at greater risk of complications due to COVID-19.
Asked if another strike would be an option less than a year after an 11-day walkout that interrupted learning last fall and ended bitterly, Sharkey told members it is something that leadership would consider but it’s “not the first thing we’d talk about.”
“There is going to be real pressure from parents and from a lot of people for us to do school,” he said. “Going straight to a line of, ‘We have our demands and we’ll strike if we don’t get them,’ is probably going to be hard for people to hear.”
Along with its statement, the union released a report Wednesday calling for nearly 50 safety protocols that spanned school-based measures as well as broader public health initiatives that would be out of reach for the school district to enact alone. The measures ranged from school-based smaller class “pods,” staggered start times, and new transportation protocols for students to paid parental leave, additional federal and state funding, and widespread, free community contact tracing.
In the report, the union acknowledged that remote learning is a poor substitute for in-person learning.
According to the report, a large percentage of unionized educators are at increased risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19 due to their age or underlying health conditions. Half of CTU’s membership, it said, live in the Chicago zip codes with the highest rates of COVID-19.
Kalyn Belsha contributed reporting.