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CTU/CPS agreement to reopen schools created safety committees to uphold hard-fought and hard-won mitigations and make building conditions safer for staff and students.

On Lincoln Park High School’s sprawling, three-building campus it’s hard for any one staff member to keep track of the conditions in the entire school. So when CTU members set up their safety committee, they made sure it included representatives from all three buildings and every program area: four CTU members including a clinician, an IB coordinator, band room instructor, and a history teacher; two SEIU 73 staff members including the head custodian and a security guard, and one SEIU one lunchroom manager.

“We knew it was important to ensure the committee had eyes on all facets of the school,” CTU delegate Scott Zwierzchowski said.

The safety committee got to work immediately, meeting two to three times a week. But given the size of the school and the 250-person staff, committee members soon realized they needed an efficient way to track and share staff concerns. So, Zwierzchowski created a google form that all staff use to direct their concerns to the safety committee.

Safety Concerns Tracker

The LPHS Safety Concern checklist mirrors the joint CPS-CTU checklist. Responses populate into a Google Sheet that gets sorted and summarized and then automatically imported into the LPHS Safety Concerns Tracker. The tracker reports the complaint, a summary of the discussions and actions taken and whether the complaint has been resolved. It’s available to all staff, parents, the LSC and community members.

“It’s our way of ensuring transparency and holding our new administration accountable to all stakeholders,” Zwierzchowski said. “It’s been pretty powerful for everyone to be able to view the document and see that their concerns actually are being addressed.”

Of the 45 concerns submitted through April, 30 have been resolved satisfactorily. Others are either in the process of being resolved or no longer relevant. The LPHS concerns mirror many of the complaints the Union is hearing from other schools, but several problems are unique to the school.

A classroom at Lincoln Park High School

Many windows in LPHS classrooms were screwed shut before the pandemic. Photo: Scott Zwierzchowski

CPS screwed the building’s windows shut before the pandemic and never reopened them, despite a requirement in the CPS/CTU agreement that at least one window in each classroom opens to allow in fresh air and improve ventilation. To address the issue, the committee conducted a walk-through of every space in the buildings prior to student arrival and then worked with the engineering team to hire a vendor to fix the windows. Every classroom now has at least one window that opens.

About 40 percent of the school’s roughly 2,000 students returned for in-person instruction in April. That has meant that every possible space — classrooms, offices, gym and basement — is in use and it’s still not enough.

In its walk-through, the committee measured all rooms and calculated occupancy based on six feet of social distancing. The administration then used those numbers when scheduling students and assigning classes. Zwierzchowski said this process helped staff identify some rooms that are too small, cramped, or generally unfit for students. That would not have happened without the safety committee.

Unreliable contact tracing

LPHS staff don’t trust the CPS contact tracing system, with good reason: they’ve seen firsthand how unreliable it is. Earlier this spring, the school had two COVID cases in two weeks, reported by students. It took days for the contact tracking process to notify the close contacts of their need to quarantine.

In one incredible case, the contact tracers instructed some remote students in the class to quarantine — forcing them to miss the SAT exam — but failed to instruct other students who actually had been in the classroom with the infected individual.

“We don’t trust the process CPS has in place because we clearly see it’s not working,” Zwierzchowski said. CPS has only hired 10 contract tracers to monitor the entire district and reports of delays are widespread. On average, it takes CPS more than five days to notify school communities of COVID cases — undermining the effort to reduce spread by quickly quarantining those exposed or possibly infected.

Some of the issues the committee has addressed have been problems in the school for decades.

Giving staff a voice

Lincoln Park High School staff take a photo to show their unity during the 2019 strike.

LPHS staff in unity during the 2019 strike. Photo: Scott Zwierzchowski

“There are things the staff has been fighting to correct for years, but we needed the power and the language of the contract to make it happen,” Zwierzchowski said. “The safety committee gives staff a voice to air their complaints and the knowledge that they’re being heard.”

Of course, the committee isn’t able to resolve all issues. For example, the administration wouldn’t agree to the staff’s preferred schedule to incorporate two extra hours of prep time on Wednesdays. The committee escalated the problem to the district-wide safety committee and that escalation brought the principal back to the table to work out an agreed schedule.

With the principal’s support, the school committee is working to escalate a request for more custodians to the district-wide committee. The staff believes the only way to enforce the deep cleaning protocols in the MOA is to fund more custodians because the privatized custodial service isn’t doing it.

“I think we’ve come up with a powerful way to spread Union power in the school and let folks know we’re working for them,” Zwierzchowski said. “The bottom line is, this is about the safety and security of our students. We can’t begin instruction if our students don’t feel safe and comfortable in our building.”

Rebecca Martinez is a CTU organizer.