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We are working hard to reopen our schools safely during this unprecedented holiday season. This has been an arduous and challenging year for many, including myself. My mother passed away in October, and earlier this month, her partner of 25 years lost his battle with COVID-19. Our union has mourned the passing of some of our most beloved members this year — Tom Lalagos, Olga Quiroga, Sherri Dabney-Parker, Luba Johnson — and many others in our school communities. We have lost students to gun violence.

Our guiding principle since March has been safety and survival, and through our work in this pandemic, we are also guided by our responsibility to advocate for educators, students and their families, and the communities we serve. We view all of these interests as intertwined.

This week, the concerns we have been expressing for months were confirmed: The majority of our families are prioritizing safety, and are reluctant to return their children to school buildings right now.

This was the case in August, and again prior to the start of the second quarter in October. Families aren’t relying on Chicago Public Schools to provide equity, because they know the district has failed them on that front for years. Families are saying that safety is equity.

Now the question becomes, are we keeping the educators and students inside of our buildings as safe as possible, and are we offering the best education we can for the majority?

Yesterday’s news

CPS continues to refuse to bargain on safety issues with us, just as it continues to refuse to make remote learning better, as students, families and educators have asked for months. Yesterday, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (IELRB), on a split 2-1 vote, denied our request to seek a preliminary injunction against CPS’ unilaterally developed plan to resume in-person learning on Jan. 4. Acting IELRB chair Lynne Sered agreed with us, saying “Health and safety is a mandatory subject of bargaining … we are literally dealing with life and death, which amounts to irreparable harm.”

IELRB members Gilbert O’Brien and Lara Shayne voted to send the issue to trial to decide whether the decision to resume in-person learning is a question of “places of instruction” — a permissive subject of bargaining under section 4.5 — or a matter of health and safety, which is a mandatory subject of bargaining under the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act.

We’re pushing for an expedited hearing next week. We’re also convening our executive board on Monday, and planning an all-member tele-town hall next Tuesday to talk about recent developments and land next steps.

Three principles

We are passionate about the importance of in-school instruction. We should have in-person school as soon as practicable, and once we’ve addressed three things: safety, with a clear, reasonable public health metric; trust, including a way to make sure that Central Office policies are implemented on the school building level; and equity, which will address our students’ health, and social and emotional needs.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s health commissioner, Dr. Alison Arwady, has said that school is safe to open right now. She said the same this summer — literally the day before CPS announced that schools wasn’t safe and we weren’t reopening.

While I respect the work of medical experts, I need to point out that CPS is refusing to name a daily case rate which it deems as safe, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Detroit and numerous suburban and collar county school districts, have all established positivity rates which go along with in-school mitigation strategies.

CPS has not answered the question: “How many cases a day is safe?” If 20 percent of the people who go for a test come back positive, there are too many people going into school with the virus.

How do we get back to in-person school? Give educators and the public a reasonable number, hit that number and we can go back. Otherwise, wait. There is a vaccine and warmer weather coming.

Building safety

I must point out again out that CPS is, frankly, just lying about a number of things — including its claim that ventilation systems in our schools can help reduce the spread of the virus. That’s just not true, because CPS has never tested its ventilation systems for COVID-19 mitigation.

In fact, the district told contract workers not to test ventilation systems for COVID-19 mitigation. So we simply do not know, and that’s not good enough.

CPS has also misled the public about the portable HEPA filters it has purchased, which do not have the capacity to effectively filter a space larger than 500 square feet. The district warehoused those filters for months, even as some of our school clerks became infected with COVID-19 in buildings they were forced to return to on August 26.

We learned this week that one school has closed all of its mobile classrooms because of ventilation issues, and we still have grave concerns about ventilation risks.

Finally, the mayor and CPS keep claiming that schools are not sources of COVID-19 spread. That, too, is simply false. In Illinois, schools are the largest identified source of COVID-19 infection in contact tracing for potential exposure sites. And while we’ve argued for months that the data on this issue is thin and incomplete, a growing body of research is showing that schools and children, who are overwhelmingly asymptomatic, are in fact potent sources of spread, especially when building conditions are poor and there is wide background community infection.

Those are our school communities. That is CPS.

Real equity

COVID-19 does not affect all communities equally.

People who work in the service sector, live in crowded, multi-generational housing and have poorer access to health care to begin with, are getting hit the hardest. This is a lot of our CPS families.

Many people are dying. Many more are contracting COVID-19. We have positivity rates of 20 percent and higher in many Chicago communities.

What we’re seeing is that a large majority of families are not yet ready to send their children back to school for in-person instruction, especially families in neighborhoods where COVID-19 infection and deaths are the highest.

CPS CEO Janice Jackson says that a majority of the students returning to buildings are Black and Latinx. This is typical of how CPS is disingenuous in its messaging, and claims equity to mislead the public about a plan that is actually worse for Black and Latinx students — a strong majority of whose parents are rejecting a return to buildings and choosing not to send their children back to buildings.

A majority of the children returning are Black and Latinx because those two groups make up 90 percent of CPS students. And CPS is planning a grave disservice to their families because its current plan will weaken remote teaching.

Make remote learning better

Because the majority of students will be staying home, forcing all teachers to return to school buildings will actually harm the education of more children than it will help, because inevitably, their attention will be occupied by the small number of students in classrooms instead of the larger number online.

For the mayor and CPS to claim equity as their motivation, and shortchange the Black and Latinx families who have chosen to remain remote, doesn’t add up. It’s not even clear to me that we can meet the state mandate for synchronous learning for these families who have chosen to stick with remote learning.

The mayor and CEO Jackson say parents have a choice, but it’s really a false choice. Under their plan, parents who choose remote do not have the option of having a teacher with undivided attention. And 40,000 teachers and support staff do not have a choice. The mayor’s CEO is telling educators to return or be fired.

But as a union of tens of thousands of teachers, PSRPs, social workers, clinicians, nurses and librarians, we do have a choice. We object to this plan, which has been shaped by CPS alone without bargaining with our union. The 43 meetings CPS claims we’ve had mean very little when we’re being stonewalled. Holding meetings, then ignoring and refusing reasonable requests, isn’t engagement.

Right now, we are campaigning, meeting with elected officials and pursuing our objections in court. And we hope that public pressure works, because safety must be paramount.

If not, our union will have internal discussions about what to do next, and what actions we will take going forward to protect our school communities. We hope it does not come to that, because we’d like to be able to mutually work with CPS and say we all think it’s safe to come to school.

But if the mayor and CPS ignore our demands, which are reasonable, we will take whatever steps necessary to ensure that we open buildings only when the safety, equity and trust we need is finally in place.

Stay vigilant, and have a safe and healthy holiday season.