By failing to listen to stakeholders or work with the Union to plan a safe reopening, Chicago Public Schools is impeding student learning at the same time the district has no plan for safe return.
CHICAGO, Oct. 2, 2020 — An arbitrator ruled today that Chicago Public Schools buildings are not safe for workers — primarily school clerks who the district forced back into buildings beginning on August 26. Today’s ruling comes amidst reports that CPS has instructed principals throughout the city to prepare for a hybrid return to classroom instruction.
The arbitrator’s ruling finds that the district’s half-measures are failing, in addition to its failures to share case reports with the public and the Chicago Teachers Union. This has forced rank-and-file CTU members to contend with both physically unsafe buildings and the fact that their employer is compounding the danger by downplaying the current risk in buildings.
CPS has consistently rejected Union demands to lay out its plans for contact tracing and universal rapid testing, which are essential components of any effort to mitigate the risk of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic in schools and the community at-large.
The Union also learned this week of COVID-19 cases at a total of four schools — Lane Tech High School, and Canty, Mt. Greenwood and Funston elementary schools.
Funston teacher Olga Quiroga had gone into her building just before the beginning of the school year and worked through Sept. 10 to help distribute supplies to families and complete other duties. Her family took her to the emergency room on September 11. She passed away on Thursday, Oct. 1.
“It’s tragic that this ruling — which irrevocably establishes that CPS schools are not yet safe to reopen — has come too late to have helped protect Olga’s life or protect other workers from COVID infection,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said. “We expect CPS to move immediately to protect the rest of our members in buildings by allowing them to begin working remotely today, as those workers did effectively from March through August.”
“The path to a truly safe reopening of our school buildings is through engagement with parents, talking to school communities and negotiating with the educators who know these schools best,” President Sharkey continued. “There are no shortcuts, and CPS’ ‘go it alone’ attitude is reckless and inherently unsafe in the midst of a global pandemic that has claimed more than 200,000 lives in the U.S. alone.”
The CTU spent two days in trial on this grievance two weeks ago, presenting more than a thousand pages of evidence, hundreds of pages of testimony from rank-and-file CTU members forced back into buildings, and extensive expert witness testimony. The arbitrator ruled that CPS violated article 14-1 of its contract with the Union by failing to provide safe working conditions for its employees. The ruling included a finding that the poor condition of CPS buildings increases the risk of catching COVID-19 for workers and others, and that CPS has not done enough to mitigate risk of contracting the deadly disease.
Amongst the arbitrator’s findings was the following: “Although the Board has made efforts to mitigate the risk, subjecting these employees to increased risk of COVID-19 infection for work that can be performed remotely does not fulfill CPS’ contractual promise that its employees work in ‘safe and healthful conditions.’ On this record, it cannot be determined that each school building is safe and healthful[…] it is better to err on the side of allowing remote work, where feasible, since the extent of the inherently hazardous conditions presented by COVID-19 is each school building is unknown.”
The arbitrator’s ruling that CPS buildings are “not safe and healthful” was built on extensive evidence of grave deficiencies in school buildings, 60 percent of which have no central HVAC system. Less than 5 percent of schools have any air purification system installed, 50 percent have non-functional critical components of their air circulation systems, and only 9 percent of CPS schools have air filtration systems that meet public health recommendations for COVID-19 safety (i.e., MERV 13 or portable HEPA filters). (NOTE: A fact sheet on the evidence around building safety can be found here.)
CPS and the CTU now have two days to come to an agreement on which duties cannot be performed remotely and must be performed in person. If no agreement can be worked out, the parties go back to the arbitrator for a more detailed remedy.
The Union has challenged CPS and Mayor Lori Lightfoot to put any return to buildings on hold until the district has remedied unsafe conditions in schools, and continues to demand that CPS reverse its refusal to bargain with the Union on safety, and instead, come to mutual agreement on necessary safety protections.
Good ventilation is key to protecting staff and students from airborne transmission of the virus, even as health officials are increasingly concerned that six-foot distancing in closed spaces is still not enough to prevent virus transmission under poor ventilation conditions. CPS, however, has refused to craft a plan to address grave facility failures in its rush to reopen.
“CPS could have avoided the tragedy of illness and death in our schools if only they’d agreed to bargain collaboratively with us as ISBE has proposed, and other districts across the state have done,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said. “It’s way past time for CPS to listen to us, agree to work with us, and finally put safety first and ensure that every building is equipped to protect our children and the educators who serve them.”