UPDATE on Jan. 6, 2022 — Just before 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Pedro Martinez canceled classes for Friday, marking day three of no school. The district made the announcement in a written letter on social media. “However, a small number of schools MAY be able to offer in-person activities for students if enough staff are reporting back to work,” the letter read. “You SHOULD NOT plan to send your child to school, unless your child’s principal tells you that students can come to school for in-person activities.”

After another day at the negotiating table with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Pedro Martinez canceled classes for Thursday, marking the second day of no school for more than 340,000 students across the district. 

The conflict between CPS and CTU, which has been happening since CPS mandated a return to in-person learning at the start of 2021, reached a boiling point late Tuesday night, when 73% of the CTU’s 25,000-plus membership voted to temporarily switch from in-person to remote learning. Since Tuesday, families have been in limbo, awaiting a conclusion to the standoff.

“Omicron is real and it is making people sick… there’s no question about it,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at a Wednesday evening press conference, adding that families, teachers and staff need to trust in the science and data, which she said points to in-person learning being safe during the rise of the more contagious omicron variant.

She referred to the CTU’s action as an unlawful, unilateral work stoppage.

“We will not relent. Enough is enough. We are standing firm. And we are going to fight to get our children back to in-person learning. Period. Full stop,” Lightfoot continued. “We owe that to our children.”

Since the omicron variant was first detected in Chicago on Dec. 7, 2021, the city’s positivity rate has risen tremendously. At the time, the city saw a positivity rate of 3.9 percent. As of Jan. 3, the first day back at school for CPS students, the city’s positivity rate stood at about 23 percent. 

In speaking with some parents and teachers for this story, the sentiment remains the same as it did in February 2021, when CPS locked some teachers out of their remote learning tools during negotiations about facilitating a safe return to in-person instruction. They still feel that schools are not safe for in-person learning.

“I’m tired of these Black and Brown children and their families being an afterthought. We don’t feel safe anywhere in this city, let alone school buildings with dirty facilities and short staff,” said Shavon Coleman, a CPS parent of two and a teaching assistant of 16 years at Lawndale Community Academy.

Coleman stands with the CTU. She has no confidence in CPS’ ability to provide the safest possible environment in the midst of a pandemic. Of course, her feelings are compounded with the decades of issues facing CPS schools, especially within Black and brown communities, including inadequate ventilation, staff and supply shortages, rodent infestation and more.

Martinez and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s ongoing suggestions that school buildings are a safe and optimal learning environment for kids during the rise of the omicron variant, which is four times more contagious than the delta variant, invokes strong doubt in parents and teachers like Coleman.

At Coleman’s school, she said the custodial staff have disputes over cleaning responsibilities, testing is sporadic, and students who test positive for COVID-19 are allowed to return to school after 10 days of quarantining — with no requirement to show a negative test result.

Thousands of people marched through the streets of downtown Chicago in solidarity with the Chicago Teachers strike in October 2019. Photo by Kay Yang [The Real Chi]

According to the Chicago Tribune, a proposal submitted by the CTU last week called for a negative COVID-19 test result in order to return to buildings, and an expansion of the in-school weekly testing program which is mandatory for unvaccinated staff and voluntary for students.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Martinez said the district has already purchased KN95 masks for staff, and now have an order of masks coming in for students. He said they’ve been in talks with officials on the state and federal level to expand testing in schools. 

CPS’ proposal to CTU on Tuesday also included a transition to remote learning if 40 percent or more of an individual school’s classroom teachers are absent for two consecutive days because of positive COVID-19 tests.

“Do we need more access to more testing? Absolutely. That is something we just have to ramp up,” Martinez said. “Dr. Arwady and I are developing a plan. With this surge, we have to expand testing.”

While Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady and Lightfoot have parroted the sentiment that schools filled with hundreds of children and adults are rarely the cause of virus transmission; the Illinois Department of Public Health has found — using contact tracing data — that schools were the likely exposure location for about 44% of cases statewide. 

Additionally, for nine out of the 11 reporting regions of the state, school is the most likely location for exposure. In Region 5, which includes the southernmost counties in Illinois, schools are a close second to a miscellaneous “other” category. For Region 11, however, which is only the city of Chicago, there is no data shown on the site.

“At the end of the last week of school before [the December holiday] break, we had almost an entire floor of teachers test positive for COVID-19,” Coleman explained. “That means that whole final week, they were in school spreading the virus.”

Back in February 2021, while CPS planned for the reopening of in-person learning, maintaining that they spent $140 million to address safety concerns in schools, the CTU’s demands stated that “they will return to in-person school once CPS can demonstrate that they have taken their concerns seriously.”

CPS and CTU reached a tentative agreement on a framework to return to in-person instruction on February 10, 2021. When that agreement expired in August, amid the Delta variant surge, CTU announced that CPS had refused to sign off on a new agreement with the same preventative measures that they’d already agreed to earlier in the year: including maintaining 6 feet of social distance, mandatory COVID testing, and health screeners at school buildings.

We spoke with four CTU members who are teachers in separate schools across Chicagoland. Three out of the four reported working conditions akin to Coleman’s. One of them, Rozell Hodges, a sixth grade math teacher at Shoesmith Elementary School in Kenwood, said that while his school is maintaining some relative order, he currently stands in solidarity with the CTU members who aren’t as fortunate.

“Since we first returned to in-person learning, our principal has been crossing all her t’s and dotting her i’s about limiting the spread of the virus in the school building,” Hodges said. “No teacher wants to go back to teaching students from home. The connection with our students doesn’t feel the same. But I have to figure it’s more realistic for a smaller school like ours to be able to prevent a whole school shutdown than some other schools that have 500, 600 kids.”

Shoesmith has an enrollment of 311 students under the administration of Principal Sabrina L. Gates. According to Hodges, Gates made it a requirement in their school to get tested weekly, set up a “care room” where students experiencing symptoms can be monitored by a parent volunteer who works in medicine, and even organized a town hall for parents where her sister, a medical doctor, sat in to answer their COVID question. 

“Ideally, these solutions would be developed on a school by school basis, but that doesn’t seem realistic in such an urgent situation,” he said. “Until CPS is able to ensure that schools can operate on a similar level to ours, I don’t think it makes sense for all schools to be open.” 

Since the start of the 2021-2022 school year, CPS schools have faced regular disruptions to in-person learning whenever COVID-19 outbreaks have taken place. In December, at Park Manor Elementary on the South Side, in-person classes ended for the entire school because of a severe COVID-19 outbreak. Earlier that month, a teacher aide at Carnegie Elementary School died from COVID-19 while the school suffered numerous infections.

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“Before the pandemic, we had staffing issues. The pandemic has just made them worse. Before the pandemic, we were saying that our students need more emotional and mental health support. The pandemic has increased that need,” Chicago Teachers Union VP Stacy Davis Gates told The TRiiBE in an interview on Monday. “Our children deserve more than what they’ve been receiving.”

Just before the December holiday break, CPS distributed 150,000 take-home COVID-19 tests  to 309 schools. Overflowing dropboxes were seen across the city as the deadline to drop off the tests was extended from Dec. 28 to Dec. 30. However, thousands of the tests were deemed invalid. 

At Wednesday evening’s press conference, Lightfoot said there are two main conflicts between CTU and CPS right now. For one, she said, the CTU wants them to agree to put metrics in place for a district-wide shut down in case of an outbreak, but the city and CPS would rather surgically move individual classrooms and schools to remote learning if safety concerns arise. 

Additionally, Lightfoot said the CTU wants mandatory COVID-19 testing for all, unless parents opt out. She referred to this as “quasi medical procedures” on children without parental consent.

“As a parent of a child, I would be outraged if a school system was doing something with my child that I didn’t authorize,” Lightfoot said. “Why would we take that choice from parents?”

Coleman said for CPS families and staff to end up back where they were last year feels like insanity. Last year, teachers were demanding similar things such as better ventilation, enhanced cleaning practices and a plan for what to do in the case of a citywide surge in COVID-19 cases.

To truly illuminate what it feels like to rely on CPS to ensure their safety, she gave the analogy of a burning building. 

“When firefighters get to a fire, their first priority is to search for signs of life, evacuate people, then make sure they are safe,” Coleman said. “CPS is supposed to be our firefighter. But instead of taking us out of the burning building to make sure we’re safe, they’re trying to perform CPR in the middle of the smoke.”

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