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In the brave new world of remote learning, we’re all first year teachers now

Sisters and Brothers,

Head show of a Caucasian man in a grey suit, white shirt and red tie, with brown hair, wearing glasses. In a “normal” school year, I’d be welcoming you back to your classrooms this fall, hoping your summer afforded you time to rest, relax and recharge your batteries. Instead, over summer break, you were—literally—fighting for your lives and the lives of your students and families. This year has been anything but normal.

Your solidarity and unity helped us beat back Mayor Lightfoot’s dangerous hybrid, in-person learning plan. As much as we wanted to be back in our classrooms this fall, with the students we are aching to see, we knew starting the school year virtually was the only safe and responsible thing to do. You then kicked into high gear refining your practice, determined to make virtual learning as engaging and rewarding as possible, despite CPS’ missteps and lack of support.

And now, the brave new world of remote learning is here. As our Recording Secretary Christel Williams said when the school year began, “We are all first year teachers now.”

I wish I could tell you that the challenges we faced this summer are over and that you’ll be able to spend the first part of the year focused solely on your craft. But I can’t. We continue to be locked in a pitched battle with a mayor who refuses to treat workers with the respect and dignity they deserve and students with the love and support they so desperately need. We don’t see that dynamic changing anytime soon.

CPS has moved to push our clerks, technology coordinators and clinicians back to work in buildings that failed to meet even basic health and safety standards, let alone the expanded protocols and PPE required to deal with a virus that has taken over 200,000 lives in this country alone. The district refused to negotiate with us—in violation of the law and ISBE guidance—on safe working conditions, scheduling and other issues of critical importance to our members, forcing us to file multiple grievances and unfair labor practices complaints.

At a time when our students are struggling with multiple traumas of losing loved ones to the virus, witnessing unchecked levels of violence in their communities, their families’ economic insecurity and lack of medical and mental health services, CPS still has not provided the additional social workers, counselors and nurses demanded by a global pandemic. We are still waiting for Mayor Lightfoot to make good on the promises of equity espoused by Candidate Lightfoot.

Our 355,000 students and their families are counting on us to meet and exceed the challenge of their educational needs this fall. The Black and Brown families CPS serves have been ravaged by the coronavirus itself and by the economic devastation it has wreaked on the city’s south and west sides. They are counting on us to continue our fight for racial and economic justice.

Students who are hungry or without a home have difficulty focusing on school work when they are with us in our buildings. Providing a computer and Internet connection—as crucial as those resources are—only addresses part of the problem. The pandemic has exacerbated the stress and anxiety levels of many students and their families. We must continue to demand the additional resources our schools need to deal with it.

As we do every year, we began this new school year with hope, wisdom and the expertise we’ve developed as committed education professionals. Each of us, from our school clerks and social workers to our computer technicians and school nurses, is a vital member of our school communities. We have the knowledge, the insight and the fortitude to do what’s best for our students.

Together we are an unstoppable force. We—not the mayor or the CPS executives who do her bidding—will make this school year work for our students and our profession. We always do. And we’ll do that with love for our fellow workers, our students and their families—and with unity and resolve when that mission requires us to push back against CPS.

We are facing a new normal this year, but one thing is constant. Your union—from your field reps to our standing committee coordinators—is here for you. Together, we will win the equity and support our students and their educators deserve.

In solidarity,

Jesse Sharkey