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At the bargaining table yesterday, we learned the obvious consequences of Mayor Lightfoot’s unsafe conditions.

We started school on Monday with a little over 230 students in quarantine. In the last three days, we’ve seen a 400 percent increase in those numbers, with more than 970 students and 79 staff in quarantine as of yesterday.

A student at Taft High School tested positive for COVID-19 and was in close contact with 102 people at the school.

Yesterday morning, we held a news conference with our sisters and brothers from SEIU Local 73 to highlight the dangerous conditions in our school buildings. In just the first week of school, the CTU office has been flooded with calls, emails and text messages from anxious, frightened and angry members reporting unsafe conditions in their schools.

They’ve witnessed overcrowded classrooms, students packed to the rafters in lunchrooms and hallways, faulty air conditioning and ventilation systems, and non-existent COVID testing.

As a result, Mayor Lightfoot and the district are being lambasted publicly for their lack of planning and preparation. The mayor has been running around for weeks claiming that CPS buildings were safe, and ready to welcome students, but real conditions in our schools say otherwise.

And let’s be clear: We are happy to be back in classrooms in front of our students, and we want to be in classrooms in front of our students, but not just for public relations purposes, or regardless of the cost and throwing caution to the wind.

But your honesty is appreciated by colleagues and families, and our advocacy and organizing is working, as we have so far:

  • paused the district’s punitive and superficial SQRP ratings system;
  • moved CPS to place a moratorium on attendance prizes and celebrations, and, instead, provide incentives to schools for healthy practices;
  • a vastly improved student vaccination program where none existed before.

CPS, however, remains without an adequate COVID testing plan. Students will be offered testing if parents agree and sign a consent form that has yet to be made available to all families (in the first week of school, mind you). So far, fewer than 1.5 percent of families have consented to testing. The daily health screener also no longer exists, as the mayor has put the burden of screening for potential infection entirely on families, and we’re seeing the natural outcome of that decision.

For your own safety, and the safety of your families and school communities, we encourage all members — regardless of vaccination status — to get tested for COVID if you are in a class that was quarantined, or were a close contact of an infected student or colleague. CPS’ current proposal around quarantine, that it has implemented without our agreement, states the following:

CPS will quarantine students and staff when there has been one or more documented positive COVID-19 cases present at school during their contagious period. Students and staff who are close contacts of the documented positive COVID-19 case will be quarantined unless: 1) they are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic; or 2) they were previously diagnosed with COVID 19 within the last 90 days; or 3) CDC/IDPH recommends quarantine for these individuals.

Close contacts will be determined based on the CDC guidance defining close contacts, which generally includes persons within 6 feet for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more in a 24 hour period. For elementary schools, students present in the classroom at time of exposure will be considered a close contact.

CPS has required 24 hours between notification of quarantine and the start of your remote day. The district has also issued contradictory guidance on where remote learning takes place, so be sure to talk to your admin and secure their approval.

More information can be found in the district’s guide for parents and educators, but more important — especially regarding quarantine protocol — please continue to review our bargaining chart to see the status of our current demands and issues that remain outstanding.

Along with a lot of fear and anxiety this week, our members also experienced the joy that comes from seeing their students back in the classroom for the first time in a year and a half. We want a successful and safe school year, but that won’t happen unless Mayor Lightfoot begins treating educators and parents as partners. So we must remain proactive. Use your safety committee if there’s a emergency. (But don’t wait until then!) Plan now to meet with administration if you haven’t already, and review protocols and schedule air testing for every classroom. Mobilize families for your Local School Council and Board of Education meetings.

CPS and the city have a record $4 billion COVID relief funds at their disposal, more than enough to maintain layered mitigation strategies and provide the extra staffing we need to keep our schools safe. This shouldn’t be so hard.

But we know what we have to do. We intend to keep bargaining, but if the mayor continues to insist on rolling back the safety measures our members and school communities need, we will continue to ramp up our efforts alongside families to forcefully demand safety before tragedy strikes.

In solidarity,
Jesse Sharkey
CTU President