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CPS roadblocks can’t dampen educators’ enthusiasm, professionalism and dedication to their students as the remote school year begins

Red screen behind a photo of a Latinx teacher and her two daughters, with the words "I PARENT. I TEACH" in bold white letters. Other text reads: "I need CPS to make available the necessary curricular materials for my daughter to fully engage in the learning process with her teachers."

As the Union continued to push CPS over what remote learning should look like–at the bargaining table and in the legal arena–our members kicked off the school year with their usual gusto, professionalism and dedication to their students.

CPS’ impediments couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of three CTU members who, on the first day of school, invited reporters into their virtual classrooms for a behind the scenes look at what remote learning means for educators and their students. The three teachers are uniquely attuned to the needs of parents and families, since they are also parents of CPS students themselves.

Excitement reigns

“I’m excited to begin the school year even though we’re starting remotely—and I’m ready!” said Nina Hike, a chemistry teacher at Westinghouse College Prep High School on Chicago’s West Side. “I’m really eager to work with students to connect the chemistry in their homes to chemistry in the classroom, but worry about internet access not just for students, but for teachers, because internet instability remains a problem. At the same time, our students are confronting two pandemics—COVID-19 and racism—so we’ll be navigating both of those together in these challenging times,” said Hike, who is Black. A Black Lives Matter sign hangs prominently on the wall of her “classroom.”

Nightingale Elementary School drama teacher Lauren Kullman echoed those hopes and concerns—even as students began to reach out to her during the early morning press conference.

“I’m eager to check in with our families, because I don’t know how they’re doing in terms of basic needs like food security, so my driving priority is making sure my kids and their families are OK and know that I’m there for them, even at seven in the morning!” Kullman said. “My school is in Gage Park, which has been hit hard by COVID, and I’m grateful we’re teaching remotely, because the challenges we’re confronting are nothing compared to what we’d be dealing with if we weren’t remote—especially given the problems we’re hearing about in schools right now.”

Ruiz Elementary School special ed teacher Paula Barajas got emotional when talking about the challenges of getting ready for this school year.

More questions than answers

“It’s just been so frustrating dealing with CPS,” she said. “Like my fellow teachers, I’m so excited to be getting back into class with my students, but I want to say, especially to parents, that I know we have more questions than answers from CPS, and families need to know that teachers and staff are here for them. I know our educators and families are strong and resilient, and we’ll get through this together, despite the roadblocks CPS keeps throwing in our way.”

Among educators’ concerns for this school year are breaking through the city’s pernicious digital divide, which locked thousands of Black and Brown students out of remote learning last spring, and pushing for new resources to help schools and families deal with the trauma students are experiencing because of the pandemic and the incessant violence plaguing their neighborhoods.

Teachers spent the weeks before school began getting ready to return to remote learning after an ultimately successful summer-long campaign demanding CPS abandon in-person school while COVID-19 continued to spread. CPS wasted critical summer months selling its hybrid plan only to drop it after the Union threatened to take a strike vote. But that left the district just four weeks to prepare for remote learning.

Unworkable schedules

The district’s “final” plan, unveiled just weeks before school was set to begin, imposes unworkable schedules, attempting to mimic the length of the school day by chaining educators and students to their computers. But virtual learning works wildly differently than in-person learning, particularly in terms of best practices and students’ developmental needs. Even a CPS Board member criticized the amount of screen time the district has imposed on educators and students.

CPS also declined to embrace valuable lessons learned about remote learning since the spring and rejected collaborative models the CTU proposed to address family needs at a time when thousands of Chicagoans still are confronting economic hardship and the dangers of the virus.

Roughly one in five CPS students—particularly Black and Latinx students—lack access to broadband in their neighborhoods, which are also often the same neighborhoods that have been disproportionately hammered by COVID-19. Broadband access has also been a problem for teachers and support staff, which is why the Union has called on the mayor to treat broadband like a necessary public utility and enhance access for every Chicagoan.

The union is also pushing for vital supports for the city’s working class families, including the reinstatement of the federal guaranteed basic income of $600 per week that expired earlier in the summer.

“The bottom line is CPS refused, for months, to work collaboratively with us to make remote learning in the fall as enriching and fulfilling as possible for students,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said. “There’s not a template for a pandemic. There’s certainly not a template for bargaining with Chicago Public Schools—it’s the same old same old we’ve seen for years. But we’ll get through this. My message to our members and to parents is, ‘Do your best because your best is pretty good.’”