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We have yet to receive a comprehensive proposal from Chicago Public Schools, which cancelled our bargaining session yesterday to allow more time for the new CPS CEO to get up to speed.

As you may know, the district is reducing the length of quarantine despite its failure to increase COVID testing. Dr. Allison Arwady claims that mitigations are working for children because rates of COVID are remaining stable.

But rates of COVID are remaining stable because the district missed yet another deadline for testing in all CPS schools and is only testing 4-5 percent of nearly 340,000 students.

Arwady also claimed that the intent was to never test all students because that required parental permission, and 100 percent parental permission wasn’t a realistic goal. But that doesn’t align with what CPS has been promising educators and families for weeks, which was a commitment “to testing 100 percent of CPS students and staff each week.”

While Arwady, CPS and Mayor Lightfoot sort through their confusion, our focus remains the same. The layers of mitigation that we need for safety are not yet in place, and we have nothing on the table that helps eligible students and family members receive vaccinations, or adequately staffs our schools.

Five critical issues

We have continually stressed five key issues at bargaining, without which we can have no confidence that our schools will be run safely:

  1. Student and staff COVID testing once a week
  2. Contact tracing within 48 hours
  3. Vaccination programs at a minimum of 100 schools per week
  4. Adequate staffing — especially nurses, social workers and substitute teachers
  5. Metrics for safety

COVID testing

CPS has moved the goalposts on testing, with Arwady now hoping to test just 10 percent of unvaccinated students. But how in the world does testing only 10 percent of unvaccinated students ensure there won’t be missed positive cases?

Only one in 20 students now participate in testing because of the anemic effort of CPS in getting parent permission to test. We have proposed repeatedly that CPS adopt the successful opt-out strategy used in Los Angeles, Newark, NJ and even here in Chicago by the Acero charter network, with whom we landed a safety agreement. About 80 percent of Acero students are participating in the testing program.

Even given the “opt in” method CPS has adopted, the rate of student inclusion is shocking. Getting permission forms signed is a standard routine in schools: field trips, photos, lunch programs all require them, for example. How is it possible that they have only gotten five percent at the end of five weeks? At this rate, it would take five years to reach the 80 percent participation already achieved at Acero schools.

Vaccination

For many months we’ve pushed for a comprehensive vaccination plan. We’re glad CPS is moving forward with consent-by-phone technology to help vaccinate eligible students. But it takes more than a piece of technology to get kids vaccinated. We need outcomes. To achieve widespread vaccination, CPS will need to commit resources to outreach.

We have proposed a number of needed measures: paid opportunities for staff to do phone banking to reach parents, vaccination events outside of schools during student dropoff and pickup and organized door knocking. We can prevent deaths like those of two Jensen Elementary mothers, but only if we get shots in the arms of students and their family members. That takes one-on-one conversation, not just tech fixes.

Contact tracing

Communication from CPS about positive cases has been uneven, unclear and untimely. Dr. Arwady says there are reasons not to call families, even those who are positive. That doesn’t reassure affected families, and it doesn’t build trust. It is good that CPS finally doubled its number of contact tracers to 60. It appears our constant appeals on this issue have borne some fruit. But we still don’t have the clear, accurate and timely communication necessary. CPS still hasn’t met the 48-hour window for contact tracing communications with families.

Staffing

We still have no proposals or information on staffing. We know that there are some 1,000 substitute teacher vacancies. Last school year, we had measures in place around staffing. This fall, CPS threw them out the window. We will continue to push for the staffing our students and schools need.

Metrics

In the face of two parent deaths, the student and teacher commitment at Jensen Elementary is nothing short of heroic. But this begs the question, how many cases does it take? How many deaths does it take before CPS takes emergency action to shut down in-person attendance and carry out a deep cleaning? We need answers and solid numbers, not just for individual schools, but for zip codes across the city. What will happen if cold weather brings another surge like it did last year? CPS needs to agree to some specific, reasonable metrics for emergency action.

Our Next Steps

This evening, our House of Delegates will convene for its monthly meeting. We have a resolution proposing specific actions across the city to up the pressure on Mayor Lightfoot to finally get serious at bargaining.

If the new CPS CEO needs time to weigh in because he wants to move CPS in a positive direction, then he should take his responsibility and these negotiations seriously, and engage in good faith efforts at a safety agreement. The proof will be in the pudding.

If CPS comes back tomorrow with substantial new proposals to expand testing, staffing and resources — something it hasn’t been able to do in months — then we’ll know it was time well spent.

If not, then we’ll know it was more foot dragging and more avoidance of the severity of this issue.

Either way, our House of Delegates will have us prepared.