CPS admitted again last week that school building ventilation was never tested for COVID-19 mitigation as mayor’s team jettisons positivity rate, swaps in ‘doubling rate’ that distorts and lowballs risk.

CHICAGO, Dec. 7, 2020—The Chicago Teachers Union filed a request today with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (IELRB) for an injunction against Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s arbitrary school reopening date. The Union is calling on Chicago Public Schools and the mayor to set clear and responsible public health criteria by which to honestly judge student and educator safety, instead of arbitrarily setting a reopening date and manipulating statistics to justify their decision. 

An injunction demands that CPS bargain with the union and land enforceable safety standards before school buildings reopen. The Union is also calling on the district to put real resources behind safety protocols — from personal protective equipment (PPE), COVID-19 screening, testing, contact tracing and vaccination, to a nurse in every school, smaller classes that allow for social distancing, social and emotional supports for traumatized students, and true upgrades to make ventilation safe.

Every one of these demands is necessary to provide real equity for Chicago’s public school students and the educators who serve them. CPS has now admitted twice in meetings with the Union that it failed to test school ventilation systems for their ability — or failure — to mitigate the spread of the virus. The district has also promised to hire an additional 400 custodial workers, but barely a quarter of that staff have been hired. 

School districts and unions in every major U.S. city except for Chicago have been able to successfully bargain mutually agreed upon safety standards. In Chicago, the mayor and CPS have elected to go it alone, ignoring parents and refusing to work collaboratively with the Union, which has successfully negotiated safety memorandums of understanding with district charter operators.

“CPS has stonewalled us for months as we’ve been trying to bargain enforceable safety standards for our district-run schools,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey, also the father of two CPS students. “We want our schools open as well, but we want it done safely, and not on the backs of the majority Black and Latinx students we serve.” 

While CPS has refused to bargain safety issues, Black and Brown parents have overwhelmingly chosen not to return to unsafe school buildings as the pandemic ravages their families and neighborhoods. These families that suffered the most tragedies from COVID-19 have repeatedly opted for remote learning, yet Mayor Lightfoot and her CPS team have failed to prioritize changes to improve remote instruction. Tens of thousands of students still struggle with broadband Internet access and adequately working devices, and as the pandemic surges, returning to unsafe buildings is prioritized over innovation and accessibility for the district’s most economically and racially disenfranchised students.

“Everything about what they are doing is wrong,” said CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, whose three children are CPS elementary school students. “Teachers, clinicians, paraprofessionals are all being backed into a corner because they want to provide guidance and support for safety, but CPS and the mayor have decided to go it alone, which means they’re not centering the needs of our most vulnerable students because they refuse to engage.”

Almost a third of the more than 500 district-run school buildings have surfaced COVID-19 cases since September. Union representatives have fielded hundreds of complaints from school clerks and technology coordinators working in buildings about CPS safety failures, from dirty buildings and the lack of PPE, to inadequate ventilation, which is a known factor in the spread of the coronavirus. The district has refused to follow a clerk’s binding arbitration decision allowing clerks and technology coordinators to work remotely four days a week, and many have become infected with the virus as a result.

More than 1,000 CPS parents last week participated in a forum on school safety sponsored by the Union and the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, where topics of discussion ranged from how stakeholders can work collaboratively to keep students on track, to the impact of screen time, to specific demands educators need met to reopen school buildings safely. The CTU is committed to frontloading safety, equity and trust in calling for the schools our students deserve in battling COVID-19, which includes comprehensive support services for families, improving proposed hybrid learning plans, safety committees in each school and a joint CTU-CPS committee to oversee the verification of safety and ventilation upgrades. 

“This is not how the mayor should be leading in a pandemic,” Davis Gates said. “Our school communities and everyone in them need a unifying strategy that puts safety first.”

“The fact that we’ve had to resort to legal strategies to have a voice and agency regarding her reopening plan is beyond disappointing.”

The IELRB rejected the Union’s previous request for an injunction against school reopening because CPS had not yet set a date for reopening. With that date now set, and management still refusing to bargain with the Union on vital safety issues, the CTU is asking the Board to revisit that decision and grant injunctive relief that bars schools from reopening until CPS and the Union have landed safety agreements. The Union expects the IELRB to review the request later this month.

The Chicago Teachers Union represents more than 25,000 teachers and educational support personnel working in Chicago Public Schools, and by extension, the nearly 400,000 students and families they serve. The CTU is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Federation of Teachers and is the third-largest teachers local in the United States. For more information please visit the CTU website at www.ctulocal1.org.