CPS officials admit they have no full safety plan in place, nor is CPS ready to train workers on proper safety protocols, despite their demand that school clerks return to in-person work in school buildings today.
After months of pressure from the Chicago Teachers Union, parents and allies, Chicago Public Schools agreed almost a month ago that school communities would start the school year remotely as the nation grapples with surging COVID-19 cases. But CPS is now seeking to force workers back into school buildings—beginning today with school clerks—even though school officials admitted in bargaining on Tuesday that they do not yet even have a full safety plan in place, nor are they ready to train workers on proper safety protocols.
That dangerous move reflects months of poor judgment by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her hand-picked Board of Ed and CPS officials. Last Sunday, the mayor admitted on Face The Nation that “comorbidity is still a real issue” for workers in complex school ecosystems, including workers over the age of 60 or those who confront underlying medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Yet the mayor and CPS continue to defy both Illinois State Board of Ed guidance and safety protocols laid out by Governor J.B. Pritzker.
“ISBE has told school districts they must bargain over remote learning conditions—a position CPS has simply ignored for months as our union has sought to discuss safety needs during the pandemic,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said. “We’re bargaining with charter operators as well as CPS, and CPS’ refusal to bargain or provide clear safety guarantees are sticking out like a sore thumb.”
On Monday, CPS unilaterally announced that a range of CTU members must work in person and in schools. This includes not just school clerks, but technology coordinators, occupational and physical therapists, speech language pathologists, social workers, school psychologists, sign language interpreters and more. All are ordered to work without basic safety policies or practices.
In a letter to CPS today, the Union is urging the district to reverse course, along with a proposal for basic minimum safety standards CPS must meet to protect workers.
“There is no reason to go against public health recommendations and require employees to enter school buildings to perform job duties that can be completed from home during a global pandemic,” CTU Deputy General Counsel Thad Goodchild stated in the letter. “Doing so needlessly and recklessly increases the risk of exposure to employees and of further spread of the virus in our communities.”
The lack of clear safety protocols and protections are particularly alarming for school clerks. Those workers are predominantly African-American and Latinx women, many of whom live in zip codes in the city with the highest positivity rates and whose communities have suffered the worst effects of COVID-19.
COVID-19 infections have spiked in school communities that have moved to in-person learning, from local high schools to schools in Seoul, South Korea. Across the United States, school administrators that pushed in-person/hybrid schooling have been forced to backtrack as cases have spiked—including in Florida, where more than 9,000 students have tested positive for the virus in a two-week span.
The Union has been leading the effort to push CPS to adopt more responsible COVID-19 policies since March, when the CTU first urged Lightfoot to close schools to protect students and workers—a move she was forced to take after IL Gov. J.B. Pritzker moved to close all schools in the state. The Union has laid out how to improve remote learning for all, pointed to successful models across the nation, and led with the science at every turn. That includes the Union’s proposal that CPS consider embracing a “smart start,” inspired by United Teachers Los Angeles, that would allow teachers and students to build relationships, ensure all families had the necessary devices and technology, and provide assistance and training to parents.
The Union has also suggested voluntary, socially distant home visits or meet-ups in parks to help families engage, and more humane, flexible and age-appropriate schedules that would not force students—from our littlest learners to our high school students—to sit in front of a computer for three hours at a time.
CPS continues to reject all of the Union’s proposals, instead seeking to force school clerks back into buildings with no plexiglass desk protections for in-person registration, no guarantees of rigorously clean buildings or PPE, and no solid safety protocols or training in place.
The district’s position is that clerks should report full time, every day, in-person even if there is not a single duty assigned to them that day that they could not complete remotely. Even if there are some duties that require employees to be in the school building, there are scores of duties that clerks (and others being called in) have successfully completed from home for months.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Sharkey said. “CPS is putting people in danger because there is no uniformity of proper protocols in place, when the district should instead make school re-openings make sense—and that starts with basic safety guarantees.”
The Union’s proposal to CPS today lays out basic safety protections for school clerks that CPS has yet to guarantee.
Among the Union’s demands are that school clerks will not be the “principal’s designee” for health and safety screening at their schools, a role best filled by health professionals; any in-person work performed by CTU members during remote learning be voluntary; CPS provide any CTU members who choose to perform in-person work with all necessary personal protective equipment, including but not limited to masks, face shields, gloves; and CPS ensures that all work spaces are fitted with sneeze guards/partitions, and that all works paces have ventilation to outdoors and space to socially distance.