On. Jan. 11, the return to in-person learning began at Chicago Public Schools (CPS) when about 60% of teachers and staff reported to classrooms for preschool students and special education students in cluster programs. 

By the end of the week on Jan. 16, CPS officials reported seven “actionable cases” of COVID-19 in students and 47 cases among adults, meaning infected people were present in a CPS school building during the coronavirus contagion period. 

Despite the infections, CPS planned to carry on with its reopening plan, which called for teachers and opted-in students in grades K-8 to return to the classroom on Feb. 1. However, the results of a CPS survey, “Learning Preference Form,” showed that only 37% of CPS students opted to return for in-person learning. And according to media reports, white students represented the majority of that number.

Many Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members ignored CPS’ demand for teachers to report to school buildings for duty on Feb. 1, as the two parties could not reach an agreement on the plan to reopen schools. While CPS is aiming to re-open schools immediately, CTU’s demands state that “they will return to in-person school once CPS can demonstrate that they have taken their concerns seriously.” 

CPS maintains that $140 million spent on COVID-19-inspired accommodations thoroughly addresses the concerns of teachers, staff and parents, but based on CPS’ track record of unsatisfactory solutions to major problems, CTU members aren’t buying it.

“I have a 1-year-old who had health complications at birth. We have people who we’ve lost to COVID-19. People think being a teacher as this superhero role. It is not. We are human,” said Jasmine James, who teaches English Language Arts at Bradwell School of Excellence in South Shore.

There is a well-documented history of CPS neglecting schools in Black and brown neighborhoods that has bred distrust among teachers and parents. That includes failing to keep school buildings up to code, equipment shortages and budget deficits. 

We’ve seen these issues play out in the media over time, including: the 2018 discovery of rats and rodent droppings at a Bronzeville elementary school, lead being found in the fountain water at 26 schools in 2016 and the shuttering of 50 schools in 2013. 

While CPS wants more teachers and student families to trust them, many Black teachers and parents are speaking out about the unfit learning environments in some CPS schools. Many of them have done so by sharing photos, videos and documents of dirty classrooms, broken hand sanitizer dispensers and liability waivers. CTU leadership has shared these materials with the media. 

For Whitney Jean, a teacher at South Shore Fine Arts Academy, she’s watched her friends at schools in other nearby districts get vaccinated already. She still hasn’t been.

“I’m seeing my friends who work in Skokie and Evanston getting all students and staff tested, and CPS is only testing 25% of staff per week district wide,” she said. “We keep hearing this word equity but a majority of the parents who don’t want to send their kids back are Black, and it’s about a lack of trust in CPS.”

Having grown up in Skokie, Jean understands what resources are afforded to white students in more affluent suburbs. Things as simple as fully functioning HVAC systems seem to be as essential to a properly run school as the walls that house it, but even in the face of a pandemic caused by an airborne pathogen, optimal ventilation is a luxury CPS students cannot be afforded. 

The solution presented in CPS’ reopening plan to the ventilation problem is portable air filters whose capacity, according to teachers, doesn’t even meet the size or the classroom.

“Our principal said she’s going to do what she has to in order to get one in every room in our school. But that’s not every room in every school,” said Jean, who has worked at South Shore Fine Arts Academy for five years. “Ventilation was an issue before the pandemic and it is a reason why we aren’t going back. It’s not a surprise. We already knew the disparity.” 

Shanya Gray is the vice president of the PTA at Kellogg Elementary School in Beverly on the far South Side. She said she’s struggling to see where CPS is putting in the effort to mitigate inequities in schools, especially during the pandemic.

“The reason these predominantly white schools are so ready to go back is because they tend to have better resources, and their schools have been less impacted by COVID-19 in comparison to Black and brown schools,” Gray added.

At Gray’s school in August 2020, CPS pledged about $2.4 million for bathroom, classroom and playground improvements, as well as installing an elevator. However, Gray said, the constant issues with the school’s boiler, ventilation and crumbling 20-year-old modular addition are more pressing, given that teachers and staff now have to be in the building during a pandemic.

“We’re a predominantly African-American elementary school in the Beverly neighborhood. I would wager to say we are probably one of the top elementary schools in Chicagoland. But we still found it difficult to be fully supported as we want from CPS,” Gray said.

According to the CDC, Black children are five times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than their white counterparts, and that multiplier catapults to eight for Hispanic children. Additionally, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Black people have been nearly four times more likely to be hospitalized, and 2.8% more likely to die. In Chicago specifically, more Black people have died from COVID-19 than any other race with 1,801 deaths, according to the city’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Photo taken in Humboldt Park during the car caravan. Photo by Alexander Gouletas // The TRiiBE

In 2020, both CPS and CTU developed their own frameworks for the return to in-person classes. The plans share similarities by addressing safety precautions including PPE and socially distanced classrooms, as well as infrastructural precautions, repairing ventilation systems and installing hand sanitizing stations. 

The differences become more clear when looking at CTU’s list of demands, which include rent abatement for parents, and additional remote learning support such as providing headphones and vision screening.

During a Feb. 4 press conference to update the public on negotiations, Mayor Lori Lightfoot boasted the city’s 5% positivity rate, the lowest it’s been since October, adding that “these schools are open and safe and we are ready to welcome our students back. And frankly, they’ve been ready for some time.” 

Standing alongside the mayor and CPS leader Dr. Janice Jackson, CDPH commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said they haven’t seen high positivity rates since welcoming pre-K and cluster students back into school buildings. Arwady said, “less than 5% of pediatric cases come from school type settings.”

Parents and teachers see that 5%— which is seemingly expendable to Dr. Arwady— as 17,750 out of 355,000 students infected with COVID-19, most of whom will be Black or brown and thus at higher risk of hospitalization from the virus. 

“Are we saying it’s okay to sacrifice a few teachers? Or if that kid comes home and brings it to their grandma, that’s okay?“ Gray asked. She doesn’t have confidence in CPS’ ability to protect her two sons at Kellogg elementary school from COVID-19.

“A lot of times, the loudest voices aren’t the majority of voices. But if the loudest voices have power and privilege, those are the voices that are going to be heard… Lightfoot doesn’t even have children at CPS schools,” Gray said.

James, who is a CTU member, has spent money out of her own pocket to purchase PPE for her classroom, despite Bradwell being one of the rare predominantly Black schools with newer renovations and a relatively clean school building, she said. 

Only about 80 of the 700 students at her school have opted for in-person learning, she said. While she understands the importance of in-person learning, James can’t bring herself to ignore CPD leaders’ use of the word “equity” to support their argument for returning to school. 

“I understand that every student cannot be virtual. There are some students who have to come back into person, whether it be for a meal, a safe place to learn. There are some students in my class who don’t have working, Wi Fi, working electricity, running water,” James said. She’s been a teacher at Bradwell for four years. 

“But what does equity actually look like in schools where kids are Black and brown? What does it mean that students in different schools have brand new iPads for virtual learning and other schools have Chromebooks where the keys are missing? What does it say that parents don’t have access to WiFi in certain locations in the city and then other parents do?” James asked before continuing. “If we don’t address those things, your roll out is not going to accommodate everybody.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Shanya Gray’s name.

is a staff writer with The TRiiBE. Email him with news tips.