Chicago schools reopening news: Locked out teachers visit school board president’s house

Students eat lunch behind Plexiglass shields at Dawes Elementary in Chicago’s Ashburn neighborhood. Chicago reopened schools Monday to about 6,000 students despite opposition to the plan from its teachers’ union.
Students eat lunch behind Plexiglass shields at Dawes Elementary in Chicago’s Ashburn neighborhood. | Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat Chicago

Welcome to our blog about Chicago’s school reopening. About 6,000 prekindergarten and special education “cluster” students were expected to return to school campuses Monday. Another 70,000 K-8 students have said they will return Feb. 1. There’s no date yet for high school students to return.

Here’s the latest.

Spotlight on the school board

Wednesday, Jan. 13. 7:00 a.m. — Replicating a strategy employed during the 11-day teachers strike in 2019, the Chicago Teachers Union held a press conference this morning outside of Chicago Board of Education President Miguel del Valle’s home in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side.

Sol Camano, a Chicago preschool teacher, speaks outside the school board president’s house on Jan. 13, 2021.
Sol Camano, a Chicago preschool teacher, speaks outside the school board president’s house on Jan. 13, 2021.

Several pre-K and special education teachers who have refused to report to school buildings and been locked out of their remote classrooms as a result spoke as cameras rolled.

Sol Camano, a second-year pre-K teacher at Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy, was among them. In two years in the profession, she described what it’s like to experience a strike and now reopening discord between the union and district leadership. She’s currently among the more than 100 teachers locked out of remote classrooms and e-mail this week.

“My students are 4 and 5. They have no idea what’s going on. They know their teacher wasn’t there yesterday,” said Camano.

One teacher knocked on del Valle’s door, but there was not an immediate answer. Members of the school board have not addressed reopening in public since teachers returned to classrooms Jan. 4. The next board meeting is Jan. 27.

The digital divide is still a reality

Tuesday, Jan. 12. 4 p.m. — Chicago schools are reopening to students this week, but remote learning isn’t going away: Most students are sticking with it, and even most of those slated to return in person on Feb. 1 will continue learning from home three days a week.

Today reporter Mila Koumpilova takes a look at Chicago’s ambitious program to attempt to close the digital divide for low-income families. The program has now enrolled just over half of the 100,000 students it set out to connect — a goal officials say they are still on track to hit by the school year’s end.

Other cities are embracing the model. But some serious stumbling blocks remain. Read more here.

What happens when there are COVID-19 cases at schools?

Tuesday, Jan. 12. 10:30 a.m. — Since March 2020, Chicago Public Schools has reported 643 cases among employees who were working in meal programs, cleaning campuses, supervising remote learning daycare sites, and working on administrative teams while schools were closed to students. (Nine student cases have been reported in the same timeframe.) Now that nearly 400 schools have reopened to a first wave of students, families and school staff will be following closely how many cases are reported and whether classrooms, and even campuses, have to close.

On the second day of reopening, five employees at McCutcheon Elementary, including the principal and assistant principal, are in quarantine following a confirmed coronavirus case, reports Block Club Chicago.

The school is not pausing work or reopening, the district said; the quarantine went into place before the staff member had any contact with students. But the situation raises questions about how schools communicate to staff and educators when cases arise.

Locked out of classrooms

Tuesday, Jan 12, 6:30 a.m. — As the first round of disciplinary measures took effect against teachers who didn’t report to in-person work, the Chicago Teachers Union angrily fired back in a press conference Tuesday morning, calling it “cruel and illegal” and again saying educators have the right to refuse to work in conditions they deemed unsafe.

District figures released Monday evening estimated 145 educators would be locked out of their virtual classrooms and have their pay docked Tuesday for refusing to report to school buildings during school reopenings.

One of those educators is Linda Perales, a special education “cluster” teacher at Corkery Elementary in Little Village, who said at the press conference that she had been locked out of her Google classroom Monday night.

“My students will not have a familiar face that knows them there [online] to follow their routine,” said Perales, who said she was not returning to in-person learning because her young students were not able to wear masks or social distance.

CPS takes hard line on work return

Monday, Jan. 11, 7:00 p.m. — Chicago Public Schools said Monday night it will move to dock pay and block access to email and Google Classroom for 145 “AWOL” — or absent without leave — teachers beginning Tuesday. “The district will continue to monitor staff attendance and take steps to hold employees accountable who are not reporting to work in-person without valid reasons,” spokesman James Gherardi said in a statement Monday night.

The teachers represent a fraction of the nearly 3,500 educators and paraprofessionals expected to report to buildings this week. The district also provided a daily count of educators who did not clock in that day; on Monday that number was 678, a slight decrease from daily counts last week that ranged from 700 to 800 per day.

The total does not include the number of employees who were granted an accommodation based on a health or family reason, the district said.

Earlier in the evening, teachers began circulating on social media a notice from the district.

A marathon City Council hearing

Monday, Jan. 11, 4:00 p.m. — Chicago’s aldermen spent the day grilling a panel of Chicago Public Schools officials about the reopening plan, a discussion some said they’d wanted to have for months. As the hearing passed the five-hour mark, aldermen continued to press for particular details on everything from the number of air purifiers and substitute pools to staffing accommodations, custodian counts, and personal protective equipment.

Aldermen at times seemed surprised by some aspects of the plan, such as prohibitions on allowing parents in school buildings. And more than once, district and city health officials said they weren’t aware of the level of frustration expressed by aldermen.

In one particularly pointed exchange, South Side Alderman Jeanette Taylor — who participated in a 2015 hunger strike to save Walter Dyett High School from a wave of school closings — pressed officials on staffing data.

“70% of principals said that they are not ready (to reopen schools), 90% percent of teachers said they weren’t ready. Did you all take in consideration that data?” Taylor asked.

Frank Bilecki, the district’s chief of public policy, responded: “Teachers were surveyed; principals were surveyed. Principals have had multiple meetings with staff in regards to reopening. On Friday, about 71% or so of school staff did return —”

Taylor interrupted. “Not returned. They filled out a first survey to say that they were not ready or they didn’t feel it was safe. Ya’ll making people choose between whether they’re going to have somewhere to live and eat and coming back to your building.”

Hours into the discussion, Kenneth Fox, the district’s chief health officer, put his position plainly: “Talking about fears, this is something that frightens me: That kids are out of school and missing their opportunities for learning. And for what? Because we were too afraid to do what all the other Archdiocese and private schools have been doing for months? What kids have been doing all over the world for months? There are over a billion children back in school now.”

A bargaining bill gets a lift in Springfield

Monday, Jan. 11, 2:00 p.m. — All eyes may be on Chicago’s school reopening, but Springfield just gave the city’s teachers union some momentum. The Illinois Senate just passed House Bill 2275 by a 38-16 vote, effectively sending it to the governor’s desk. If Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs it, House Bill 2275 could give the union more leverage in the reopening debate.

The bill repeals a section of labor law, known as Section 4.5, that limits what’s up for discussion at the negotiating table. Most of the opposition to the bill comes from Senate Republicans.

On Sunday, Chicago Public Schools’ general counsel, Joseph Moriarty, said that passage of the bill could impact the city’s school reopening plan. If the bill passed, he said during public testimony before a Senate executive committee, “We will be back before the Illinois Educational Relations Labor Board and CTU will be seeking injunctive relief. CPS will not have 4.5 to rely on.”

Speaking Monday, Sen. Robert Peters (D-Chicago, 13th District), urged senators to vote in favor of the bill so that Chicago would no longer be an outlier with other school districts. Chicago is the only school district that has such limitations.

“We have a system where every other school district has these bargaining rights, except CPS. I think it’s simple. It’s not complicated. And after so long of hearing about Chicago’s, it’s so different from the rest of the state. Well, here’s an opportunity for it to be with the rest of the state.”

The official restart

Monday, Jan. 11, 10:00 a.m. — At a morning press conference at Dawes Elementary on the South Side, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson described a smooth start.

“We started school today successfully,” Jackson said.

But city officials said they would not be able to provide student attendance numbers until next week and an updated number for employees reporting to work until later this week. Most recently, 71% of teachers and support staff expected to report to work did so on Friday, Jackson said, though she stressed some of those who did not come to their school buildings were following safety protocols after failing a daily health screener or traveling out of state during the holidays.

“The majority of our teachers are doing exactly what they are supposed to,” Jackson said.

Jackson said again that teachers who did not receive an accommodation to work from home and continue to resist returning will have access to their Google Classroom accounts blocked and their pay docked — after receiving several warnings from the district. The district’s teachers union has questioned whether the district can legally take those steps.

Jackson also said the district launched last week its voluntary rapid testing program for school employees, and it will post the results in real time on its website as teachers are randomly tested monthly. About a fifth of school-based employees declined to participate in the voluntary program last week.

Asked about her decision to extend the city’s stay-at-home advisory even as schools reopen, Lightfoot said that she sees no contradiction: Schools are considered an essential service, and she said, “From the very beginning, schools were exempt from the stay-at-home advisory.”

Scenes from an atypical first day

Monday, Jan. 11, 8:00 a.m. — The first day back to school for students at Bateman Elementary in Albany Park started with an old standby: the school photo. One parent snapped a picture on the front steps of Bateman’s imposing, multi-story brick facade. Another had their child stand next to a colorful sign with the school’s name, the school playground in the background.

But this year isn’t like any other.

As families line up outside the door of Bateman, with the recommended distance between them marked by orange traffic cones, the young students, bundled up in hats, coats and masks, hopped and skipped with barely suppressed energy.

“We can’t wait to learn together today,” said an educator who, holding a digital thermometer, welcomed families into the building one-by-one.

Dressing for work in 2021

Monday, Jan. 11, 7:50 a.m. — One Chicago preschool teacher weighs in on dressing for the first day of work.

‘The choice is yours’

Chicago teachers share concerns about reopening outside of Davis Elementary in Chicago. Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat
Sixth grade teacher Erin Kelley stands outside of Davis Elementary in Chicago on the first day of reopening.

Monday, Jan. 11, 7:00 a.m. — Preschool teacher Kate O’Rourke joined in a Chicago Teachers Union rally outside of Davis Elementary, a school in Brighton Park’s neighborhood, before sunrise. O’Rourke said three of her preschool students were signed up last week to return to campus, but by Monday, their parents had all reversed course. “They all pulled out (of in-person learning),” she said.

O’Rourke, who was granted a last-minute accommodation to work from home on Sunday after multiple requests, said preschool teachers still have a lot of unanswered questions.

“Teachers are confused about whether we can have books,” she said. She’s worried children will have to sit in their desks all day and that centers aren’t allowed.

She said she’s also concerned about the teachers’ assistants and special education assistants, who generally earn less than teachers, who may choose to return because they feel like they have no option. (The district has said staff who refuse to report to work and do not have accommodations will start facing consequences.)

The school’s union delegate, Erin Kelley, a sixth grade teacher, said that teachers are trying to support each other, even if some choose to return. “What I’ve been saying is that the choice is yours. You have to do what’s best for you.”

The first day back

Monday, Jan. 11, 5:30 a.m. — About 6,000 pre-kindergarten and special education students are expected to report to school today after nearly 10 months of closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic. There will be a lot to watch: A visit by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to one campus, a parent picket line scheduled at another, teachers union rallies, and a 10 a.m. City Council committee hearing about the reopening plan.

We’ll be reporting all day. Keep checking back for updates.

Over the weekend, there was a flurry activity. The district sent e-mails and social media messages in an aim to clear up last-minute questions and “misleading” information about aspects of the plan, such as care pods for sick students.

Meanwhile, a state legislative committee debated a bill Sunday that would expand the bargaining rights of Chicago Teachers Union members, and several Local School Councils weighed decisions to draft advisory resolutions asking the district to delay the plan. The teachers union expanded a crowdfunding campaign for educators who might lose wages from opting to not report to buildings.

Is withholding pay legal?

Friday, Jan. 8, 5:00 p.m. — A deputy general counsel for the Chicago Teachers Union said Friday that it is “illegal” for the school district to withhold pay from teachers who don’t report to work on Monday as assigned.

In an afternoon press call with educators and clerks, Thad Goodchild responded to a warning from district leaders that pay would be withheld from pre-K and special education teachers who don’t return. Earlier in the day, district officials said about 65% of teachers were reporting as requested, an increase from the start of the week.

“Employees have a right to decline an unsafe work assignment and to make themselves available to continue working in the same manner as they have the past 10 months,” Goodchild said. “Educators who exercise their rights to continue to work remotely are entitled to be paid for that work. It is illegal for CPS to withhold their pay as they are threatening to. It doesn’t sound like equity to me and it doesn’t sound legal.”

Forging ahead

Friday, Jan. 8, 9:00 a.m. — In strongly worded remarks Friday morning, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson said schools would be fully operational Monday for the 6,000 preschool and special education students who’ve selected to return. Despite decisions by some teachers to not report to campuses this week, Jackson said the district had seen an uptick in teachers who returned to schools as the week progressed. Read more here.

Parents questions’ on pre-K

Thursday, Jan. 7, 5:30 p.m. — Contrary to fears that COVID-19 will strip early learning classrooms of everything but desks, preschool children will still find plenty of play items when they return to classrooms Monday, Chicago Public Schools’ early learning chief, Bryan Stokes II, said Thursday afternoon.

Stokes was the first district official in the spotlight in a new “Ask an Expert” series on reopening coproduced by the school district and University of Illinois at Chicago. (Next week is the district’s chief medical officer Kenneth Fox.) He did so as thousands of pre-K students are expected to return.

He said that stuffed animals, sand tables, and other play elements that cannot be easily sanitized on a daily basis will be removed from classrooms. But teachers can still make use of centers, book nooks, and other regular features of preschool classrooms.

Some Power Point presentations circulating around social media to Chicago parents show rooms stripped bare of everything but a desk. He described a different setup.

“There will be blocks, there will be puzzles, there will be all of the activities that teachers create,” he said. “There will be differences — but at the same time kids have already adapted to many of those differences. In a classroom setting, being able to engage with a teacher will be hugely beneficial.”

In response to parents’ questions about whether their children’s classroom teachers may get shuffled midyear, Stokes said it’s up to individual schools. There are many variables, from how many students at a particular school choose in-person learning to how many teachers at a school are granted accommodations.

Could vaccines change the conversation?

COVID-19 vaccine syringes sit on a table.Rachel Ellis/The Denver Post
Pfizer vaccines prepped and ready to go for patients in Colorado, including some school nurses.

Wednesday, Jan. 6, 1:10 p.m. — With the city’s teachers union now putting vaccinations on its demand list, where will Illinois teachers fall in line for vaccinations — and when?

In a news briefing, Gov. J.B. Pritzker shared more details about the next phase of the state’s vaccination plan, called 1B, which is to include educators and child care workers as well as adults age 65 and over. There’s still no exact forecasts on timing, but he said that phase 1B should launch within the next few weeks and that the City of Chicago — which controls its own vaccine distribution — will have authority to set up sites particularly for teachers.

Supply is currently the biggest hurdle, with the state about a quarter of the way through its first phase (1A) of health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. So far, Illinois has administered 207,106 vaccinations.

A citywide debate

Wednesday, Jan. 6, 12:30 p.m. — The reopening conversation is spilling over into new venues, with word that Chicago City Council’s education committee will host a reopening hearing at 10 a.m. Jan. 11, opinion pieces in the Chicago Tribune taking aim at the union and urging for reopening to proceed as planned, and a flurry of resolutions calling to delay reopening from the school district’s Local School Councils.

At least 19 councils have passed resolutions asking the district to delay reopening. The letters are symbolic because the representative bodies, made up of parents, teachers and community members, don’t have authority to change how instruction is delivered.

But they are a sign of the increasingly politicized spaces that councils have held in the last year in the wake of the votes on whether to retain school police.

In a letter to council members, Guillermo Montes de Oca, head of the council office, said it was important that schools “allow each family to decide if they are ready to return to their schools.”

Parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand is collecting council letters here.

Some schools have held council meetings to discuss the resolutions. More than 100 people logged into a virtual council meeting Sunday at McPherson Elementary in Ravenswood, reaching participant restrictions on Zoom.

The discussion included a parent representative asking other parents not to send their kids into school to protect the health of teachers, and the principal explaining where sick students would wait in the school, if necessary. The council passed its resolution.

New demands from CTU

Tuesday, Jan 5. 5:35 p.m. — The Chicago Teachers Union said Tuesday afternoon that it wants to delay the start of in-person school until staff can receive at least one dose of the vaccine.

In a new list of demands, the union said it would also consider moving forward on a reopening agreement if the district offered teachers a voluntary return to in-person learning and provided weekly testing for in-person educators. If the district agrees to delay school reopening for a vaccine, the union said it would suggest extending school until the summer.

It’s not clear yet when teachers will be vaccinated.

The union previously had called for the city to establish a 3% positivity threshold for reopening decisions. Union attorney Thad Goodchild said the proposals shared Tuesday offer Chicago Public Schools an alternative path toward an agreement on school reopening.

Chicago’s COVID-19 rate is currently 10.6% but district officials said they are using a different reopening metric that considers “case doubling time” — the number of days it takes the number of newly diagnosed cases to double.

As the first wave of teachers returned to school this week, the district and union said they had increased the number of bargaining sessions, even as both sides have continued to criticize the other.

Who’s coming back?

Tuesday, Jan 5. 8:30 a.m. — District officials presented staffing numbers showing that half of the Chicago Public Schools pre-kindergarten and special education teachers and about 70% of support staff who were expected to return to school buildings Monday did.

Schools chief Janice Jackson called the turnout significant given what she described as pressure from the district’s teachers union not to return to work — and she said she believes more employees will start coming to school buildings in the coming days.

Jackson insisted a written accord with the union is within reach, a statement that Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates challenged. Read more here.

Principals in the middle

Tuesday, Jan 5. 6:30 a.m. — In a first joint appearance of the two groups, Troy LaRaviere, the head of the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association, joined a morning press call with Chicago Teachers Union leadership to critique the city’s reopening plan. He urged school district leadership to consult principals before moving forward.

“We’re the ones who have to implement the plan,” said LaRaviere, a former principal. “Ask any hospital administration who has been successful at keeping doors open safely, they’ll tell you they brought in anyone involved,” from administrators to custodians.

A Monday survey by the association of 300 principals and assistant principals, a fraction of its larger membership, showed that 22% of respondents said they had the staff they needed to reopen safely” and 17% said reopening in January and February was the right decision, with 64% saying the district timing was wrong; 19% of survey respondents did not answer that question.

LaRaviere said his membership wants to see joint bargaining between the district, its principals, and its teachers; a differentiated return timeline based on school readiness; a pool of cadre substitutes and staff dedicated to each school to fill absences and help with administrative tasks; and a public metrics threshold for when schools should be opened or closed. They also want a reconsideration of simultaneous instruction — when the district asks educators to teach remotely and in-person at the same time, similar to the city’s Catholic schools.

Anecdotally, principals’ reactions were mixed, he said. “Principals are not a monolith,” said LaRaviere. “For the most part, you have a big group of folks in the middle who are very frustrated and upset but not quite frustrated or upset enough to risk their employment.”

In the joint call, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said that during a Monday evening call of 2,400 pre-K and special education cluster teachers who were asked to report back to work that day, 49% said they did not report to buildings. The district has not yet said how many teachers reported to work Monday.

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