Mayor mulls reopening schools as CPS broadband plan flounders and two schools report COVID cases

Some Black and Latinx neighborhoods are near 20 percent positivity rates, as these communities remain most at risk for infection and death.

CHICAGO, September 30, 2020—CTU school clerks gathered in Douglas Park, across from Collins High School early this morning to hand out PPE and other supplies to technology coordinators, fellow school clerks and other employees on their way to work who’ve been forced to report to unsafe CPS school buildings across the city. District employees were critical of CPS’ ongoing failure—almost a month into the school year—to enforce safety standards in buildings, and renewed calls to allow school employees to work remotely, as they did last spring and through the summer, until every school building is safe.

CTU members are also calling on Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to take steps to improve remote learning—including providing promised internet access to more than 60,000 students who lack the ability to participate in remote learning because they have no internet access. CPS estimated this summer that roughly 100,000 students lacked access to broadband—an essential tool for remote learning.

Mayor Lightfoot said Tuesday that she was mulling reopening schools because of ‘concerns’ about CPS’ failure to reach the District’s youngest students through remote learning. But two-thirds of students without internet services have been unable to access free broadband through Lightfoot’s ‘Chicago Connected’ program.

“CPS is absolutely not prepared to bring workers back into buildings safely—let alone hundreds of thousands of students,” said school nurse and COVID-19 survivor Erica McIntosh. “At the same time, remote learning will only work if students can actually get on the internet. CPS should listen to workers, get kids the internet access they desperately need, and improve the District’s inadequate remote learning plan, instead of rushing to reopen at the expense of the health and lives of students, families and school staff.”

The Union also learned from rank-and-file members on Tuesday that workers at two elementary schools, Mt. Greenwood and Canty, have tested positive for COVID, with several staff currently under quarantine. CPS has yet to publicly confirm COVID at those schools, and an administrator castigated CTU members at one school for reporting a COVID case in their building to the Union.

CPS has admitted that COVID cases tripled in schools between May and early September, even as schools ran with only skeleton crews in buildings.

“We get calls daily from members about safety problems at their schools,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said. “Many schools on the South and West Sides lack PPE, enforced social distancing, protective barriers and the proper ventilation systems needed to ensure safety.”

“We’re still waiting for the mayor and her district leaders to bargain with us to make sure that every school has safe working conditions, while CPS refuses to make remote learning work better for students, families and educators,” President Sharkey added. “If we’re not prepared to keep a few hundred clerks and technology coordinators safe right now, then how can we keep more than 350,000 students, educators and all staff safe when we return to school buildings?”

The Union has received hundreds of complaints of unsafe working conditions and failure to enforce pandemic safety protocols in buildings since some members were forced to return to buildings in late August. The CTU is demanding that CPS follow guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education and bargain to consensus on safety and learning issues during the pandemic, a position that the district continues to reject.

While Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said Chicago’s COVID rates are low enough to ease restrictions on bars, restaurants and other businesses, many areas on the South and West Sides are seeing double digit positivity rates—and rising. State health officials have flagged positivity rates above 8 percent as grounds to impose more strict rules to prevent the spread of the virus. Yet dozens of Chicago neighborhoods, particularly majority Black and Latinx neighborhoods, are currently well above that threshold, with positivity rates in some communities nearing 20 percent.

Positivity rates for South Side communities that include Chicago Lawn, West Lawn and Lithuanian Plaza are up sharply to almost 20 percent. Positivity rates are also up to 14 percent in North and South Lawndale, with rates also up sharply in double digits in communities that include Garfield Ridge, South Chicago, the East Side, South Dearing, West Englewood, West Garfield Park, Fifth City and Homan Square. Archer Heights, South Brighton and Garfield Manor on the South Side are seeing positivity rates of 16.5 percent, while in largely Latinx neighborhoods like Hermosa and Belmont Cragin, positivity rates are 12.5 percent—50 percent higher than the state threshold for more stringent pandemic rules for businesses and residents.

Chicago’s Latinx residents continue to confront the highest rate of COVID-19 infection, and Black residents continue to bear the bulk of COVID-related deaths. Those persistent numbers are a stark reminder of the disproportionate burden of illness and death that their long-neglected communities continue to bear. Roughly a quarter of Chicago’s 77 community areas are seeing rises—sometimes steep—in the percent of positive COVID-19 tests, with the majority of those communities seeing double digit positivity rates.

Lightfoot also said on Tuesday that she was looking at the Chicago Archdiocese’ Catholic schools as a ‘model’ for what returning to CPS buildings might look like. But there are stark differences between Archdiocese and CPS schools. 15 times as many CPS students—over 110,000 children—attend public schools in zip codes with among the highest COVID rates in the City, compared to just under 7,200 students in the Chicago Archdiocese, which runs schools and parishes that serve all of Cook and Lake Counties.

“CPS is currently failing to even inform the public about COVID cases happening right now at schools—and unlike the archdiocese, they haven’t closed schools where COVID has broken out or even promised to deep clean those facilities,” CTU Recording Secretary and former school clerk Christel Williams-Hayes said. “Any plans of a safe reopening must begin with overhauling the ventilation systems in our schools, and must be anchored in both data and input from educators and the parents and communities that CPS serves.”

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.