President Donald Trump, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and their corporate cronies are pushing to reopen schools with in-person teaching this fall.
Our members, like educators around the country, also want to return to their school buildings—just as desperately as students and parents want them to. We all stand for safe and equitable reopening of our schools.
Unlike Trump and DeVos, however, the Chicago Teachers Union believes the best way to guarantee the safety of our school communities is to begin our school year virtually.
Our new report, “Same Storm, Different Boats: The Safe and Equitable Conditions For Reopening CPS in 2020-21” examines what parents, students and teachers throughout the city of Chicago will need to return to in-person education, and do so safely.
But let’s remember, there is no safe way to re-open anything during a pandemic. The only plan CPS has available right now is one that mitigates harm. Which means there is still risk and people will still encounter harm.
So what does this mean in practice?
What the mayor and CPS need to provide
The lack of a negotiated set plan that spells out criteria that mitigates the maximum amount of risk leaves us no other choice but to say that we cannot return to in-school, classroom instruction, and must continue remote learning until we clarify how to keep students, educators and school communities as safe as possible.
Our students, their parents and our school communities need stability, agency, support and leadership. CPS needs to implement critical health, safety and staffing measures to protect them.
Specifically, school buildings need to be kept clean and sanitized. There is currently nothing we have seen from the district that guarantees a modicum of safety. There must be widely available masks and other PPE, which includes face coverings for students and additional protective equipment for educators, janitors, nurses and all school staff.
There must be adequate staff on hand in each building—nurses to perform health checks and deal with emergency situations, and counselors and social workers to deal with the trauma inflicted on students and their families by the pandemic.
There must be adequate social distancing, especially for situations in which masks won’t work. We already know that students will have a difficult time wearing masks throughout the entire school day, so it’s critical to maintain a safe distance of six feet between people and desks.
Educators need prep time and self-directed days, and a moratorium on teacher evaluations.
Moreover, our evolving knowledge of this disease tells us that close and prolonged contact with someone who has the virus in a poorly ventilated space is high risk, so the district must specifically take steps to address an airborne pandemic. This includes basic steps like making sure there is plenty of fresh air flow in schools, or even holding some in-person classes outside, where the risks are demonstrably lower.
Lastly, there must be options for people who cannot participate in school—both students and staff—who are immuno-compromised or have other underlying health issues that make coming into school buildings too risky for them.
At this time, it’s not clear how the mayor’s handpicked Chicago Board of Education will respond to these demands. Los Angeles, and San Diego have all recently released plans to reopen based on fully remote learning with some in-person instruction for students with various special needs, but whether the mayor and the school board in Chicago will implement these common-sense measures isn’t yet known.
But schools have to be reopened safely—they can’t be reopened on the basis of political expediency, without criteria and without regard for the lives of the educators, or frankly the lives of students and their families. Sure, younger kids do not seem as vulnerable to this virus as older people, but many students live with middle-aged parents, or immune-compromised siblings, or with grandparents.
The unsafe reopening of schools will surely claim the lives of our loved ones. And we already know that the vast majority of CPS’ student body comes from marginalized Black and Latinx communities that have already been hardest hit by the pandemic, so prematurely reopening schools could further fan the spread of this disease in these already devastated neighborhoods.
Every day, Chicago and Illinois experience an uptick in COVID-19 cases and positivity rates, and most concerning are the numbers going up among youth aged 10-19. Our union is choosing certainty over confusion and delay, and we need confidence to move into our school year. That confidence will not come without clear criteria on what constitutes safety for our schools.
How do we assess whether it is safe to return to schools in the fall?
Back in March and April, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said schools should reopen when Illinois enters Phase Four. Two key metrics of Phase Four are cases going down every day and contact tracing of 90 percent of new cases within 24 hours.
Illinois fails on both counts. Over the last 30 days, cases are on the rise across the state.
The disparate impact of COVID-19
We are losing valuable time. The safety we need requires immediate resources, imagination and collaboration. Our union must be and should be in position to improve remote learning for English Language Learners, special education and early childhood education. Our time would be much better spent perfecting our practice and creating platforms to ensure student success under the new normal.
There is a jarringly disparate rate of COVID-19 infection, severe illness and death in Black and Latinx communities, where Black Americans are dying at twice the rate of whites, and structural racism and inequality mean people live with economic and social factors that increase health risks.
Individuals living in these communities are more likely to have “essential” jobs, insufficient housing and health care, and higher levels of pre-existing health conditions. The deaths of essential workers—nurses, bus drivers, meatpackers and Amazon workers—are considered “collateral damage” by Donald Trump, but we do not believe that essential workers are expendable workers.
Essential workers are the parents of our students. In some cases, essential workers are our students. The president and his sycophants think it is reasonable to expect essential workers to die in disproportionate numbers.
We do not.
Ninety percent of CPS students are students of color. Reopening schools as COVID-19 rages across the country is nothing less than a dangerous gamble with the lives of people who come from communities most devastated by this pandemic.
Trump is asking us to accept that the lives of our students and the lives of educators are less worthy of safety, health and dignity. In fact, he is compelled to push that view so that he and other billionaires can add to their vast fortunes. Why else would he demand schools open without providing the funding and resources needed to do so safely?
This also explains why Black and Latinx parents—from Minnesota to Florida—express more hesitation than others about sending their children back to school. The communities most ravaged by this disease know that it is deadly serious, and with the explosion of cases across the U.S., there is real and growing fear about sending kids back into physical classrooms.
Union concern and the common good
The mayor and CPS must begin to see stakeholders—parents, students, educators—as partners. There is no way to create a plan in this moment that ignores our needs. We are not the problem. Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos are the problem. The Union will fight to make any school plan as safe and reasonable as possible. We are going to unite with parents and other unions to present the strongest legal, labor and political front to protect our schools and each other.
We are not going to let political expediency coming from the federal government, the mayor or anyone else endanger our lives.
We need to spend the remainder of the summer fighting for the schools our students deserve, even if we do not return to them in the fall.
All students, but especially our students on the South and West sides of Chicago, must have access to broadband Internet and devices. Their families need Universal Basic Income, with real collaboration to expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and extend unemployment benefits and the moratorium on evictions. A large concern about returning to classrooms is about protecting the health and safety of the vulnerable populations we serve.
It is also, however, about our own health and safety. After all, many people are arguing that educators must prove ourselves worthy by returning to work for the good of the nation and its economy.
But we will not allow Trump and the corporations that back him to abuse us or our students for a buck. We will use the power of solidarity and the power of our union to defend ourselves, our students and their families at all costs.