Our students deserve healthy, welcoming school facilities that center safety and support in the era of COVID — including both aid for trauma and the practical mitigations that helped tamp down COVID incidence once we returned to school buildings in 2021. Our safety agreements with CPS anchor those mitigation practices, from mask wearing and vaccine access to working ventilation and clean buildings that help students feel appreciated and valued.

Unfortunately, CPS continues to struggle on a range of these needs, from ventilation issues to building cleanliness, while private contractors like Aramark continue to reap tens of millions of dollars a year while they short staff schools and fail to provide custodians with the supplies they need to keep classrooms clean.

The district must do better, because our students deserve and need better than business as usual.

Part A: Making schools safe and healthy spaces

In March of 2020, when it became clear we faced an unprecedented global pandemic not seen in our lifetime, CTU called on Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to switch schools to remote learning to protect students, educators and families from COVID. She refused, but just days later Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued an executive order shuttering schools and most nonessential businesses in an effort to stem skyrocketing COVID infection rates and deaths.

Educators quickly scrambled to make the difficult transition to remote learning, with little training and scarce resources from the district. While the move to remote learning was difficult for everyone — students, families and educators — it saved lives, not just of educators disproportionately vulnerable to COVID, but also of students’ family members, including those in multigenerational households also at heightened risk from COVID in the months before vaccines became more widely available. Remote learning also, ironically, benefited some Black families, who found that remote learning protected their children from the microaggressions, biases and racism children experienced in school.

As is clear from the continued Omicron waves, COVID is not done with us. The pandemic is not over and likely will not be for some time. The virus continues to mutate at breakneck speed and new variants are far more contagious and can potentially cause more harm. Given this reality, it is vital that Chicago Public Schools continues to implement safety measures to mitigate the risk of illness and reduce the risk of disruption from missed school days, quarantines, and staff sickness.

Mayor Lightfoot and her CPS team made a swath of promises during the pandemic to lure families back to in-person school: personal protective equipment for students and staff, hand sanitizing stations throughout buildings, daily deep cleaning of classrooms, and purifiers to clean and recirculate the air. They said schools would be clean and safe.

Like many district pledges, these promises often amounted to little on the ground. When students and staff returned to in-person school, they found filthy buildings and untenable conditions. Air purifiers, promoted as a deterrent to COVID spread, failed to materialize in many classrooms and windows refused to open. The machines that CPS did provide were often insufficient, scaled to serve classrooms smaller than 500 square feet, and had no way to monitor indoor air quality.

“There is no indoor air quality monitoring,” as one environmental building consultant reported.  “How will we know where we are, and how will we know what we are doing? And how will we be able to make any corrective action?”

Furthermore, CPS never developed tools or a curriculum to educate students and families about COVID, though many  educators took it upon themselves to do so. This failure likely contributed to misinformation among students and their families, undermining vaccination and testing rates. And CPS’ decision to retain Aramark and Sodexo, companies that had failed to maintain even basic cleanliness before the pandemic, belied the district’s commitment to clean schools.

CTU’s hard fought safety agreements

Through continuous bargaining with CPS, two work actions as well as other protests, countless meetings with members, appeals to state and local legislators, and in collaboration with other CPS unions, CTU fought for safety for members, students, their families, and others working in CPS schools. We achieved two written reopening agreements that included layered safety mitigations that the mayor’s CPS team would not have implemented without our fight. While not perfect, our schools were much safer than they would have been absent those agreements, which were heralded as some of the best in the nation.

The agreements’ chief protections included a mask mandate for all individuals in all CPS school buildings, a health screener to detect infections prior to the school day, procedures for contact tracing, school-based COVID testing, vaccine access, protocols for flipping to remote, substitute teacher incentives, job protected leaves, and the creation of school-based and district-wide safety committees, which became key to enforcing the agreement. Those committees were tasked with developing a checklist and ensuring safety mitigations were being met in their schools.

While layered safety mitigations like these — particularly in terms of student/family access to vaccines — have been unevenly implemented, they’ve helped reduce COVID spread and, ultimately, save lives. They must be continued if our schools are to be safe, healthy spaces for students, staff and our school communities.

A map of Chicago that shows areas of community vulnerability to COVID. The least vulnerable are on the north side, downtown and Beverly. The most vulnerable communities cut a swath of Chicago along the west side from Montclaire south to West Pullman and including Burnside and South Deering. See long description for further details.


Under mayoral leadership, CPS has failed to systematically convey the importance of lifesaving COVID vaccines and move to get shots in arms. Nor did CPS institute an effective COVID testing program for the 2021–22 school year until they were forced to implement one as a result of a safety agreement with CTU. The mayor and her health department have done little to make vaccines easily accessible for students and parents (or employees), even though the CTU has urged the district time and again to partner with us on school-based vaccination events. And despite endless claims of a commitment to “equity,” Mayor Lightfoot’s approach instead has been grounded in a laissez faire philosophy that forces parents to find shots on their own, through online means (for which many Black and Brown South and West Side residents lack access) or at local pharmacies — an approach filled with barriers given the dearth of pharmacies in Black and Brown communities.

While the district has hosted events and vaccination sites, the sustained outreach and access has fallen far short and failed to make a significant dent in vaccination rates. As we began another school year, half of children aged 5-11 across the city are not fully vaccinated and over 90% of children that age are not boosted. Over a quarter of children aged 12-17 remain unvaccinated. For CPS, the numbers are worse still. As of September, 2022, 53% of children ages 5-11 and a third of 12-17 year-olds are unvaccinated.

Our union is committed to doing what we can to help fill the void, hosting multiple events at schools, in neighborhoods and at CTU headquarters, but our resources are limited compared to CPS. This failure to reach our students and families is particularly concerning given the expectation that the CDC will roll out new vaccines this fall designed to protect against virulent new variants.

CPS’ failure to fully promote vaccinations — and partner with the educators who know our families best — helps explain why CPS student vaccination rates have been consistently lower than citywide rates throughout the pandemic. Furthermore, stark racial disparities exist in vaccination rates, disparities evident at the beginning of the 2021 school year, and still exist. CPS did not bother to publicize this data, but a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the CTU brought it to light.

The FOIA’d data show that only a quarter of Black children ages 12-17, half of Latinx children and two thirds of white children that age were vaccinated at the start of the 2021 school year. These racial disparities were more stark for children than adults.

Source: City of Chicago Covid-19 Vaccine Coverage Data


These graphs show the stark disparities that still exist at the beginning of the 2022 school year between Black, Latinx, and white school-age children, with white children vaccinated at rates far higher than Black school-age children.

A March 2022 article in Chalkbeat exposed the racial disparities of vaccination rates among Black students.

Majority Black elementary and high schools had an average vaccination rate of 22%, compared to majority Latino elementary and high schools, which averaged about 47%. North Side schools in Lincoln Park, Lake View, and North Center saw the largest rate increase of 40 percentage points or more between Dec. 2021 and March 2022, data shows.

A study of vaccine confidence among Black Americans found that, while it had improved, mistrust still suppressed vaccination rates. It found that:

Mistrust of the vaccine stems directly from historical and ongoing discrimination and racism experienced by Black communities and can be conceptualized as an adaptive coping response to such experiences. The authors found that vaccine-related mistrust is a multifaceted construct that includes distrust of health care and health care providers (to be equitable), the government (to provide truthful information), and the vaccine itself (to be safe and effective).

In a city with a mayor who ran on a platform of equity for all, these disparities are egregious, and they reflect an inadequate plan to reach out aggressively to the communities most at risk.

Health care workers — including Black emergency department physicians — have urged a better path forward, built on “genuine communication, relevant messaging, thoughtful partnership, and a relentless focus on removing barriers” to “build transparent and equitable mechanisms to address vaccine hesitancy in the communities most at risk.” This approach must be grounded in a commitment to reach people where they are at, built on an understanding of both the material barriers that people confront and the historical healthcare mistreatment and neglect of Black and Brown residents that undermines vaccine uptake.

COVID testing

Good COVID surveillance testing keeps students, staff, and school communities safe. We need good data at both the school and district level to assess risk and inform decision making. Absent that, people are at risk, especially as highly-infectious variants become the norm. Testing allows for cases in an individual school to be identified and isolated to keep the school community as a whole safe.

By the spring of 2022, CPS had ramped up testing to roughly 60,000 students a week, an improvement to be sure. But it still paled in comparison to testing programs in other large, urban school districts. Los Angeles, for example, routinely tested hundreds of thousands of students each week. That success was due to the opt out testing program adopted by Los Angeles. Mayor Lightfoot, instead, insisted on opt in testing, claiming that COVID testing was akin to a “quasi-medical procedure,” at the same time that the forms and systems parents needed to use to register for testing were difficult for families to find and navigate.

COVID testing also comes with costs and investments of time and effort, and that has been an impetus for districts to walk away from surveillance testing, especially in response to the CDC’s abandonment of the recommendation as ESSER funding winds down. Due to our years-long efforts to fight for and maintain mitigation standards, CPS intends to continue its screening testing program across schools for the 2023 school year, even as many other districts drop in-school testing. Our safety agreement with the district for the 2022- 2023 school year will continue to make testing available to students and staff to quickly identify COVID incidence and potential outbreaks in each building.


Wearing a good fitting, medical grade mask, combined with other mitigations, is one of the simplest and most critical tools to prevent COVID spread. As the virus has mutated, scientists have noted that not all masks are created equal. And masking requirements have shifted during the pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends people wear the most protective mask possible. KN95 and medical masks provide a higher level of protection than cloth masks, which highly contagious newer variants can penetrate. All staff, students, family, and visitors should continue to wear masks at all times when in CPS school buildings.

As with COVID surveillance testing, we know that masking with high-grade masks works, but the mayor continues to favor what’s politically expedient rather than proven public health guidance. CPS should continue to provide what our safety agreements have spelled out — KN95 masks on demand for all students, educators and school community members.

School Cleanliness

While COVID is an airborne virus and we now know that surface cleanliness is secondary to critical layered mitigations — including masking, good ventilation, COVID testing and vaccines — school cleanliness remains a critical and persistent problem in our buildings. At the same time, with the growing spread of Monkey Pox, cleaning surfaces is critical — including in schools — while cleanliness also helps prevent other illnesses like the flu.

Both educators and students feel devalued when they are forced to work and learn in filthy, poorly maintained spaces. But CPS’ track record in this area is dismal. Numerous reports and investigations have detailed the disgusting, filthy conditions in schools since CPS outsourced janitorial and maintenance work to Aramark/Sodexo in 2014.

“There’s sometimes only one person to clean my whole school,” Lisa Catledge, PreK teacher assistant, Nicholson STEM Academy

Still, the district continues to renew and expand the Aramark contract, awarding another $85 million in May 2022. CPS must cancel the contract, transfer accountability of cleaning and maintenance back to the school level, and adopt districtwide cleanliness standards.

Clean buildings

Chicagoans thought they were finally getting rid of the terrible Aramark custodial contract — until last fall, when CPS surprisingly turned around and approved a new contract. Soon afterwards, the Sun-Times reported that teachers and staff at Eberhart Elementary had to clean the school themselves and the head of the facilities department was fired.

That failure to keep schools clean was replicated as educators went back to schools in August 2022, when many teachers spent the week cleaning classrooms that had not had a thorough cleaning since school let out in June. CPS simply does not have enough custodians and Aramark routinely fails to equip the custodians we DO have with sufficient cleaning supplies to properly clean our buildings every day.


New strains of airborne COVID are overall much more transmissible than earlier variants and recent research indicates that new strains of Omicron are much more effective at getting into children than previous variants.

The pandemic raised awareness of the importance of fresh air and sufficient air circulation inside closed spaces. Yet CPS has dragged in ensuring that every classroom is adequately ventilated. Last year complaints poured in from educators across the city, who could not open windows that were painted or nailed shut at the same time that standalone ventilation equipment was typically inadequate to recycle air adequately to prevent COVID spread. This is particularly important given CPS’ overwhelming abandonment of social distancing as a mitigation strategy, meaning that many students continue to learn in overcrowded conditions in close quarters, making mitigations like KN95 masks and rock-solid ventilation that much more essential.

Federal authorities have laid out minimum standards for ventilation in schools, and CPS has worked to attempt to assess HVAC status and window access for school buildings. The data that CPS collected showed that too many schools had decaying, nonfunctional or even nonexistent centralized ventilation systems. Based on the risks tied to inappropriate ventilation, the CTU filed an unfair labor practice over the district’s decision to send 400,000 people into unsafe buildings. CPS responded by conducting “Indoor Air Quality Assessments” for every school building. The vendor deemed every school “safe to inhabit” despite the fact that all of the initial air testing was conducted in empty buildings so carbon dioxide levels could not be assessed and air circulation was not even calculated. In other words, the air quality testing that CPS spent millions of dollars on did not properly test the quality of the air inside schools. CTU was able to win a court ruling to delay reopening schools. CPS ignored the judge’s ruling, but the district did purchase air purifiers for every room in the district that did not have appropriate ventilation.

Other school districts have taken a different approach. The District of Columbia, for example, developed an HVAC dashboard to allow the public to submit and track HVAC repair requests — the kind of transparency that has long been lacking in CPS.

The COVID pandemic is not the only reason to upgrade climate systems in schools. Air conditioning will be a necessity as schools across the country deal with a future of intensifying heat waves driven by climate change. We will return to school facilities needs later in this report.


The good news is that, unlike the early days of the pandemic, COVID science today is increasingly settled, even as dangerous new variants emerge. We know how the virus spreads, and we know what mitigations work to stem that spread. To ensure safe and healthy school spaces, CTU recommends:

  • All who enter a school building — students, staff, families, and visitors — should be vaccinated, and if eligible, boosted. CPS students already are required to have vaccines against numerous diseases that have, in the past, killed or infected large numbers. School vaccination requirements have saved millions of lives.
  • All staff, students, families and visitors should continue to wear the highest quality masks possible when in CPS school buildings.
  • Randomized COVID testing should continue and CPS should adopt an opt-out testing regime.
  • School buildings must have good ventilation that comports with federal and ASHRAE (the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) standards, and classrooms must have windows that open.
  • CPS must cancel the Aramark contract and return administration of school maintenance and engineering to the school level. Return supervision of school custodians to principals and return hiring to CPS.
  • CPS must create science curricula and informational flyers that educate students about viruses and the way to control their spread — and that encourages vaccine uptake among students and family members.