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President Jesse Sharkey

You can’t teach or learn if you’re dead.

Sisters and brothers,

Our sister Olga Quiroga’s path to becoming a CPS teacher was not an easy one. An immigrant from Mexico, she cleaned houses to put herself through school, worked as a PSRP and then finally received her teaching degree. It’s a path familiar to many of our students and their families, which is one of the things that made Olga such a beloved teacher.

She fell ill with COVID-19 just days into the school year, after she went to her building to distribute supplies to the students and families she loved.

Olga died on the very same day President Trump revealed his coronavirus diagnosis. I’m guessing she didn’t have a team of world class doctors to fly her to a world class hospital. She didn’t get expensive experimental treatments that are available to only a handful of people in the world. But, thankfully, her family was with her at the end.

Just two weeks after Olga’s death, Mayor Lightfoot and Janice Jackson announced that our youngest and most vulnerable children—pre-k students and those with special needs—would be used, essentially, as school reopening guinea pigs this fall, with other students to follow in January. The mayor desperately wants students and teachers to return to in-person learning, regardless of the risk. She says equity demands it.

We want to be back in our classrooms with our students, too, but not until it is safe for them, their families and our members—and not until we get some answers from the mayor, such as:

What metrics are you using to move to in-person learning and why have they changed since the summer? Where’s the plan for testing and contact tracing? How will the hundreds of old school buildings—many with windows that don’t open—be retrofitted to provide proper ventilation and filtration now that we understand the virus is airborne and aerosolized? How will students maintain social distancing in overcrowded schools and classrooms, some with 40 or more students?

If CPS can’t keep staff safe in buildings with just a skeleton crew—as an independent arbitrator concluded—how will it ensure safety when thousands of students and workers return?

And, the most important question of all: How many student or educator deaths, like Olga’s, is the mayor willing to accept on her shoulders, as a consequence of her rush to resume in-person school?

Make no mistake—that is not a rhetorical question. CPS announced its ill-timed and illegal reopening plan the day after the state reported its highest ever daily COVID rate—over 4,000 new cases. Those numbers at press time continued to rise — and they only tell half the story.

While the city’s coronavirus positivity rate hovered around 4 percent in early October, over 30 zip codes in the Black and Latinix communities CPS serves were seeing double digit rates, with some as high as 25 percent. Today the virus is surging, and positivity rates are twice what CPS said in July should trigger remote-only learning. The mayor’s talk of equity rings hollow in light of those damning statistics.

A district truly concerned about equity would not even contemplate in-person school during a pandemic until every building had a full time nurse; hot, running water; full PPE, and fully functioning air filtration and ventilation systems. A mayor truly guided by equity would consider the tragically disparate impact the pandemic has had on the city’s working class Black and Latinx families. She’d make sure every child in every school had access to the social workers and trauma supports they need. She would spare no expense to tap TIF funds and other new resources to provide the support those families so desperately require.

Instead, Mayor Lightfoot, her CPS CEO and her rubber stamp board of education continue to ignore the voices of educators, parents and students. They illegally refuse to negotiate with us over safety protocols, remote learning plans and schedules. They have failed to commit to the robust safety protections our school communities need.

We want to collaborate with the district to ensure the safety of our students and our members. But CPS and the mayor continue to work in the shadows while the clock is ticking on our school year and, quite frankly, our lives. We are confronting a public health crisis like nothing we’ve seen in our lifetime. We yearn to be with our students, but you can’t work or learn if you are dead.

Our hearts and thoughts go out to Olga’s family and to the thousands more who have perished and suffered during this pandemic. Trump and all the other right-wing COVID deniers may never know Olga’s story. But her daughters, who went public with their mother’s plight, are determined that her death has meaning. And we are, too.

We will keep Olga’s story in our hearts and thoughts as we fight to ensure the health, safety and well being of our students and the educators who serve them.

In solidarity,

Jesse Sharkey, President