School CEO assures Chicago that classrooms are safe as teachers stay home

CEO Pedro Martinez cites low COVID transmission in schools as teachers union 'work action' could close schools for weeks.
By: | January 5, 2022

Classrooms were closed across Chicago Wednesday after the teachers union refused to return to in-person learning over what it describes as “the absence of safety guarantees” as COVID cases skyrocket.

About three-quarters of Chicago Teachers Union members supported the “work action” resolution to return to remote learning until Jan. 18 or the latest wave of infections begins to decline.

“The educators of this city want to be in their classrooms with their students. We believe that our city’s classrooms are where our students should be,” the union said on its website. “Regrettably, the Mayor and her CPS leadership have put the safety and vibrancy of our students and their educators in jeopardy.”

Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Pedro Martinez said the district will work with the union to address its members’ concerns.

“Our schools are safe, there is no evidence that our schools have ever been unsafe this school year,” Martinez said in a press conference streamed on social media shortly before the union vote. “Cases were always at a fraction of the community. We rarely saw any instances of any major transmission.”

Martinez, acknowledging that cases are rising, said individual schools have safety committees that can react to outbreaks on a building-by-building or classroom-by-classroom basis.

Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot warned the decision to go remote would harm hundreds of thousands of Chicago families, particularly in Black and brown communities. She urged the union to help officials convince families to get children vaccinated. “That’s the answer to all of these issues—the uncertainty, the fear, the anxiety,” she said. “A fully vaccinated school community is a safe community.”

When schools were fully remote last year, failure rates in elementary schools tripled and more than 100,000 students vanished, but she credited the district with re-engaging many of those students and helping them recover from COVID’s disruptions.

“Why on earth would anyone think it’s a good idea to reverse that progress and harm our students again,” Lightfoot said. “We simply cannot ignore that sad history of what happens when we go fully remote.”

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The union, which says it does not want to return to permanent remote instruction, is demanding that the district to require all staff, students, vendors, and volunteers to provide a negative result from a PCR test taken within 48 hours before returning to in-person learning and conduct regular testing after that. The union cited district statistics that show only 51% of 12-17 year-olds and only 12% of 5-11 year-olds are fully-vaccinated.

The union also wants the district to distribute KN95 masks and set metrics for closing individual schools that experience outbreaks for the rest of the school year. Along with insufficient safety protocols, the work action was driven by staffing shortages that have, in some cases, resulted in classes being combined and taught by any available adult, including security guards, union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said in a press conference streamed on social media.

“Instruction isn’t happening,” Gates said. “We are warehousing children in large spaces with warm bodies. We do not have enough adults in the buildings.”

Arizona offers tuition assistance

In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey is also pushing to ensure families have access to in-person learning, albeit with a different strategy. On Tuesday, Ducey launched the “Open for Learning Recovery Benefit program,” which will give families whose schools are closed—even for a day—up to $7,000 to pay for child care, transportation, online tutoring and school tuition.

“Everyone agrees that schools should stay open and kids need to be in the classroom,” Ducey said in a stsatement. “We are making sure parents and families have options if a school closes its doors. Parents are best suited to make decisions about their child’s education.”