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Chicago child care workers want better COVID protections. K-12 educators are watching.

High angle photo of a child drawing. Pexels

When they handed out masks on the first days of preschool classes at a YMCA in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, lead teacher Tahiti Hamer said they quickly made a startling discovery: The masks didn’t fit.

“The masks were too big for children’s faces, and the masks provided for staff were too small. Some were hard to breathe through because of how tight they fit the face,” she said.

Staff and students could bring their own, she said, but the reality was that many didn’t. “Some (families) really can’t afford them,” she said.

As Chicago’s early childhood educators return to in-person learning with small groups of children, some contend that new safety measures fall short of protecting them. Staffing requirements and sick leave policies drafted before the coronavirus pandemic no longer serve teachers in the COVID-19 era, some educators say.

Now unionized educators at a handful of the city’s larger child care centers have begun petitioning management for hazard pay, additional sick time, better safety equipment, and thorough sanitation measures. Service Employees International Union’s healthcare division, which represents a small percentage of the city’s early learning workforce, has begun circulating a petition that officials say is reaching beyond its membership, though union staff say it’s too early to provide specific numbers.

The workers’ demands, and how much the union decides to agitate over them, will be something to watch. The city’s largest teachers union — which said Wednesday that it has been raising the issue of staff and student protections for months and has received no guarantees in writing — is also paying attention, since it likely forecasts some labor issues that could arise if Chicago moves to reinstate in-person learning this fall without buy-in from the union.

“CPS continues to refuse to make any hard commitments that will guarantee safety and protections for our members, our students, and our families,” said Stacy Davis Gates, the Chicago Teachers Union’s vice president. The organization is in regular conversation with early childhood organizers.

The city’s teachers union isn’t aiming to renegotiate its contract, but rather to come to a mutual agreement about learning and working conditions amid the pandemic. So far, no agreement has been reached. “We expect to be in discussions over these vital issues through the summer,” said Davis Gates, “but the lack of progress despite months of discussion has raised real alarms about the possible threat to the safety and well-being of our school communities.”

The early childhood workers’ petition calls for plentiful personal protective equipment with “no rationing” and regular professional deep cleaning and sanitation. Workers also are asking for 15 paid sick days in addition to vacation and personal time — since workers will be asked to call off at the slightest hint of illness — and additional paid leave, if necessary, to care for sick family members. (The city’s teachers’ union said it is seeking similar protections, including hard guarantees of adequate PPE and 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.)

The early educators’ demands also call for adequate staffing because teachers can no longer combine rooms or trips to the playground, which makes it difficult for staff members to use the bathroom or take a brief break.

In conversations with management, workers at some unionized sites also have asked for hazard pay, according to an SEIU representative. In Illinois, several reports on the industry have found that child care workers, who tend to be women of color, are chronically underpaid.

Man-Yee Lee, a spokeswoman for the YMCA of Metro Chicago, where workers have met with management, said that the organization takes safety of staff and children “very seriously.” “We have provided reusable adult and kid-sized masks with strap adjusters and shoe covers at each one of our sites,” Lee said in an e-mailed response. Face shields are also available but must be worn with a mask.

At this time, the agency is not offering additional hazard pay or sick time. That’s similar to other organizations, she added.

The pandemic, it seems, has galvanized workers over some long-standing concerns, made all the more urgent by the health risks of in-person learning. Marie Cook is a lead teacher at the Centers for New Horizons, which has multiple locations, and she has asthma. She is required to wear a mask, and at times she needs to step out of the classroom for a gulp of air.

“I told (my employer) already, y’all are going to be annoyed but I am stepping out because I have to put my life first,” she said.

And while the mask is new, she has long been concerned about salaries and how much many families pay in co-pays. “To me, the system is broken. It has been broken for a long time. The system needs to work for the families and the workers. It’s not doing that right now,” she said.

The hazard pay issue resonates with Tunja Daniels, who’s working from home three days a week and working two in-person at the Mary Crane Center, another multi-site child care center. She made that arrangement because the center that cares for her own children is at capacity, the result of state limitations on the number of children that child care centers can serve. “It’s been an eye opener,” said Daniels.

That’s another issue that unions will have to weigh as in-person schooling returns: If districts adopt irregular schedules, educators will face the quandary of child care for their own children.

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

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