UPDATE — Jan. 12, 2022: This evening, the CTU’s rank-and-file voted to approve the agreement with Chicago Public Schools for increased COVID-19 safety mitigations.

We all know about the protracted negotiations between Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) about how to safely transition back into school buildings after a winter break that saw Chicago undergo its largest surge of COVID-19 cases due to the highly infectious omicron variant. But who represented the voices of students?

Their perspective was reduced to a talking point that both sides used to bolster their arguments on keeping schools open or closed. The majority of CTU’s 25,000+ membership — which includes teachers, clerks, nurses and other support staff — referred to the safety of kids as a primary motivation for their desire to teach remotely. However CPS leadership continued to refer to students’ struggles in virtual classrooms.

“No one wins when our students are out of the place where they can learn the best, and where they’re safest,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said during a late-night press conference on Monday following CTU’s House of Delegates decision to suspend their labor action. CPS made a few concessions under the tentative agreement. 

Monday evening’s negotiation updates prompted teachers’ return to school buildings on Tuesday and students are to return on Wednesday. Meanwhile, CTU’s rank-and-file members still have to vote on the tentative agreement this week. Ballots will likely be sent out to members on Tuesday, Chalkbeat Chicago reported. According to Lightfoot, the tentative agreement includes an increase in COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and metrics to temporarily convert individual schools to remote learning; one of the main points of contention between CTU, CPS and Lightfoot originally.

[Editor’s note: Just before publishing this article, Lightfoot announced Tuesday on social media that she has tested positive for COVID-19. “I am experiencing cold-like symptoms but otherwise feel fine which I credit to being vaccinated and boosted. I will continue to work from home while following the CDC guidelines for isolation,” she said in a Twitter post.]

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But CPS students aren’t just talking points — they’re human beings with feelings and opinions. They’re also egregiously underrepresented in media coverage on the subject of public education, a sector in which they are listed as the primary motivation for every decision on both sides. 

So The TRiiBE wondered: How do students feel about how CPS has handled the pandemic? 

We put a call out to students on social media, asking how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected them over the past two years. The responses we got back were overwhelming. Countless students wanted to express their feelings about remote and in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and how their safety should have been prioritized and handled by CPS and CTU leaders.

After The TRiiBE spoke with eight students, ranging from second to twelfth grades, the consensus has been that many CPS students haven’t felt remotely safe from the threat of catching and spreading COVID-19 in school buildings. Others have mixed feelings about the way CPS has handled the return to school this year. 

“At first, I missed in-person class because it was hard to focus in online class,” said Ezra Henny, a second grader at Edward Coles Language Academy, a magnet school in South Shore. She said that her second grade classmates had to go remote because students were infected with COVID-19. “Right now, I think it’s a good idea to do online classes because the students will keep getting sick in-person,” she stated.

Henny is far from alone in her feelings about returning to school. Among the eight students we interviewed, most have reported that they’ve struggled in virtual classes, but none of them think that those struggles warrant a return to in-person instruction while safety mitigations remain so woefully insufficient in their school buildings.

“I’m a student who is really academic and really wants to strive. But when COVID came around, and all these things went virtual, a lot of opportunities were given because of more accessibility through the internet. So in my mind, I was, like, why not take every single one of them. For me, it was, like, 24/7, I have to hustle. You’re trying to balance all your schoolwork and some of the academic extracurriculars, and in trying to be an athlete, it’s very difficult,”
Antonio Padilla told The TRiiBE. He is a junior and wrestler at Eric Solorio Academy High School in the Gage Park neighborhood on the Southwest Side.

“I don’t really think having in-person class is worth it, as long as people are going to keep treating it like business as usual,” said Zay Urooj, a newly transferred junior at Mather High School in West Ridge. Urooj’s educational experience was first derailed by COVID-19 in March 2020 while she was a freshman at Roberto Clemente Community Academy, which offers advanced academics. 

During the early days of the pandemic, Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered all school buildings across the state to stop in-person learning. This precaution moved all 340,000+ CPS students into virtual classrooms. During that time, Lightfoot said, CPS lost contact with more than 100,000 students, mostly Black and brown from low-income families.

“At home I have a little baby sister I help take care of. I started a job. It was difficult to keep my focus during virtual with these other things to worry about,” Urooj said. “I wasn’t really worried about how safe it would be to return to school until we went back.”

According to Urooj, when she showed up to Mather as a junior at the start of the 2021-2022 school year, the hallways were crowded and there was no real effort to enforce COVID-19 safety protocols. Ahead of the school year, CTU and CPS reached another impasse about what safety protocols should remain in place for the new school year from their March 2021 agreement. Much like this one, that debate came amidst a surge of COVID-19 cases due to the more severe Delta variant.

Cornell Franklin-Smith, a junior at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, said they’ve felt similarly to Urooj regarding the lack of precaution; the only restrictions they have in place at Whitney Young are a mask requirement and a lunchroom table capacity limit that no one really follows.

On Jan. 10, CTU members voiced their desire for remote learning during a Car Caravan through downtown Chicago to City Hall. Photo by Alexander Gouletas // The TRiiBE

“I don’t think that CPS cares a lot about protecting people from COVID-19. They’d rather have no school at all than remote learning where people feel safe,” Franklin-Smith said.

It doesn’t take much of a thorough investigation to discover that insufficient cleaning practices and poor structural condition of CPS school buildings have plagued families in the district for decades. You can look no further than a story we published last week, where teachers aired out CPS for the rodent infestations, custodial staffing shortages and the added responsibility placed on them of having to clean the building themselves. 

According to 14-year-old Catlyn Savado, a freshman at Percy Julian High School on the Far South Side, there were two weeks in December 2021 when people were bringing and sharing blankets because there was no heat in the school. 

After someone tagged CTU in Savado’s tweet about how cold it was, she said the next day they had the heat blasting to the point people were wearing summer clothes to school. To top that off, 2021 ended with the school building undergoing maintenance that made it reek of sewage.

“That smell was so overwhelming. How is sewage leaking in our building safe? How is having no heat in December safe?” Savado asked. “Not only are these schools not prepared for us to come back, these aren’t even conditions that you should be placing humans in.”

Savado started speaking out about CPS leadership’s treatment of students and teachers during 2020’s #DefundThePolice campaign at the height of the uprisings, when she was vocal about wanting the school district to end its $33 million contract with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) that keeps cops in school as School Resource Officers (SROs). Today, the contract remains in effect, but only to the tune of $11.1 million. At the time, she was in 7th grade at Sutherland Elementary.

At a #CopsOutCps rally outside of CPS headquarters on Aug. 26, people occupied the streets to get their message across. Photo by Alexander Gouletas // The TRiiBE

Now, in her freshman year at Julian, Savado has joined forces with other high school students who share in her dissatisfaction for the educational environment CPS places them in, especially considering the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When interviewed by The TRiiBE, the group was made up of four students — Savado along with Lux DeLaGarza, a junior at Eric Solorio Academy; and Shujaa Ajamu and Judai Smith, a junior and senior, respectively, at Kenwood Academy High School.  But the group’s membership is growing by the day. They call themselves Chi-Rads, and they are organizing to create a public schools system that best serves the needs of students.

“Both sides [CTU and CPS] have this agreement that students should be left out of the conversation and it’s a constant thing,” Ajamu said. “This is the time now to get students to realize that, with us being in the conversation, we can change the game.”

While Chi-Rads have been clear in their messaging that they are on the side of CTU in the debate over a safe return to in-person classes, they aren’t shy about calling their allies to task over the patronizing —  and sometimes borderline dismissive — tone teachers and staff take with them when they bring up their concerns about the school community.

“I remember reaching out to CTU contacts about how we as students can support them and they were like, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. We’re fighting for you guys’ future,'” DeLaGarza said. “I love CTU and the work that they do, but adults can be dismissive of us so fast. If we felt like we were being fully represented in this discussion, then we wouldn’t feel the need to build coalitions like this.”

Ultimately, DeLaGarza is right. There’s no reason that his or his classmates’ concerns should be dismissed under the guise of protecting them. Students exist at the center of every school community and, as such, deserve to have a seat at the table when discussions about the well-being of that community takes place.

“What I saw at my high school is a messy situation. In my school: there’s no social distance for metal detectors. There are two lines for each detector. Same goes for the lunchrooms, and nobody says anything. The hallways are crowded. Not a lot of students are putting on their masks properly,”
Mandy Fernandez said in a written letter to The TRiiBE. She is a senior at Kelvyn Park High School in the Hermosa neighborhood on the Northwest Side.

Of the eight students we interviewed, Antonio Padilla, a senior at Eric Solorio Academy High School in Gage Park, is the only one to have had a positive experience with the way his school handled the return to school for the 2021-2022 year. At his school, COVID-19 testing is offered once a week. And for athletes like him, there’s a requirement to be tested regularly, he said. 

“The people who I surround myself with, and the adults, are really careful about how they manage COVID. For example, if you have some sort of symptom, they tell you, ‘OK, just take two weeks off until you actually feel better,’” Padilla said. “A lot of students take that with a really huge responsibility.”

But Padilla did acknowledge that there are some students in his school who don’t care about COVID-19 as much. They don’t pull their mask up to cover their mouths and noses. He understands the concerns around the omicron variant and COVID-19 overall, but with increasing access to testing and the vaccine, he’s not worried about the virus as much now as he was in the beginning of the pandemic. He said he’s vaccinated, but hasn’t received all of the doses just yet.

Padilla is more concerned about remote learning, but has mixed feelings about it. He acknowledges that there are many parents who can’t stay home to monitor their children during remote learning. But it was also frustrating to watch CPS lock teachers out of their virtual classroom tools during negotiations, he said, because there are a lot of students who are in credit recovery to make up their grades for past work. 

“I know there’s a lot of parents out there who are really concerned for their kids, and I know there’s a lot of other parents who are willing to accept the risk,” Padilla said. “Last year, we had a hybrid, and students who just don’t feel like it’s safe enough to go to school, they could stay online. I feel like it gives more choice to students and parents. I really liked that hybrid schedule.”

In any return plan worth its salt, students not only need to be a part of the deliberation, but they should be steering the conversation.

“The position every other stakeholder has in this is from an observant view. Teachers are with us at school. Parents are with us at home. Administrators aren’t even really with us, they just control us,” Smith said. “None of them can feel the full impact that the failures of this system are having on our lives the way that students do. We are the ones living it.”

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This story has been updated to include the proper gender pronouns for Lux DeLaGarza, a junior at Eric Solorio Academy.

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