A Chicago Teacher explains why he voted for today’s remote-only work action

Yesterday, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teachers voted to refuse in-person work until January 18 or until the city’s COVID-19 wave falls below the threshold set last year (400 COVID cases per day) – whichever happens first. Or until the union votes to end it earlier.

It was not an easy vote, and I would rather be in the classroom now than worrying about what I will be doing the rest of this week. But, I believe it was a necessary vote for the safety of our students, communities, staff, and an important push-back to the incompetence and careless evil of our employer.

Even though teachers have indicated we are prepared to teach remotely, we have been locked out of all our CPS accounts including email, Google docs, time keeping app, and Google Classroom, so remote learning is not happening today.

From my perspective, no one wants to go through with this remote-work action, but a majority are frustrated by the inadequate handling of COVID in our schools on a district level (on a school level I feel like my school administration is doing a decent job, given the circumstances) and feeling like not enough is being done to mitigate the current Omicron variant surge.

Teaching during the pandemic

This is my fourth year in CPS, though I have been a public school teacher since 2009, and this has been a difficult and stressful year for sure. Having the responsibility of stopping COVID spread and policing mask-wearing in the classroom, dealing with increased behavioral problems from students who were not in the classroom much last year, hearing news of an eighth grade student at my school dying last week of a gunshot to the head, and having my toddler son’s daycare report positive cases/quarantines are some of the situations that make being a teacher in this time in Chicago challenging.

Over the last three months, I have had all eleven of my music classrooms I see throughout the week (from two Pre-K classrooms all the way up to eighth grade) go into quarantine for periods of time.

With every quarantined class, I first find out that they are in quarantine through the Principal, homeroom teacher, or just when the class doesn’t show up. Two to three (or more) days after, I get a message from the official CPS contact tracing department saying that I had a student who tested positive. Sometimes I don’t get a message at all. This demonstrates the completely inadequate system that CPS has in place.

Teachers who are vaccinated and without symptoms and who were close contacts are not required or even allowed to go into quarantine. A CPS staff member who was about my age, in his 40s and fully vaccinated, died in November of COVID in a neighborhood not far away from my school.

There are some schools in the district where all classes have been put in quarantine and many teachers are out, making it difficult for that school to stay open.

On Monday, almost half of the students (56%) at my school were absent / stayed home. 

CPS’s poor response

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit our school district, CPS was slow to transition to a remote-learning model. Schools were shut down in early 2020, but as a music teacher at a South Side elementary school of about 400 students, I wasn’t asked to do live remote teaching until the Fall of 2020. We did provide lessons for students to complete on the Google Classroom (which few students engaged in), but no live remote teaching. I think this was mostly because the school district was slow to acquire the capacity and willingness to get live remote learning via video stream up and running.

In early 2021, Chicago Public Schools tried to get everyone back to in-person school even before the vaccines were available to school employees. Chicago Public Schools tried to divide us by sending school clerks, and teachers of different grade levels, back to in-person school at different times.  In January of 2021, union members voted by 71% to authorize a remote-work-only action in defiance of Chicago Public Schools. This allowed many teachers to buy the time to get a vaccination before having to go back into the classroom.

In early February of 2021, membership voted to ratify a framework to return to in-person schooling and by late February I was back in the classroom. Being a music teacher, I was still teaching remotely for the rest of the school year – students who chose to be in-person were in their homerooms the entire time with no switching classrooms throughout the day.

For the Fall of 2021, all students have been back to coming into my classroom. Most classes do not have enough room to socially distance properly, but we do the best we can.  Students have to be constantly reminded to keep masks on properly. The school has provided wipes and hand sanitizer.

Dropping the ball on testing 

CPS didn’t send any of my school’s students home with rapid tests for the winter break on December 17, though there was a rumor they were planning to do so. In the week before we came back to school for January 3rd, we got a last-minute message about PCR tests being available for pick-up at the school for students and staff. I got mine, completed the test and sent it in the same day via Fed Ex, and on Sunday night I was informed that the test wasn’t able to be processed in time, therefore was “invalid.” 

This happened to a large majority of students who sent in these tests to be read by the contracting company. Therefore, many students and some staff were not able to know if they were positive or not before going back to school. This is infuriating because the school district has not been very responsive to the union’s repeated calls for increased testing capacity at community sites. Testing at my school happens every Wednesday over a two-hour period. But throughout the district there have been problems with the testing company not showing up. At my school it took many weeks before the testing was available reliably on a weekly basis.

CPS encourages vaccination but has not mandated vaccinations for students, and leaves students to figure out how to get a shot on their own. Schools provide some masks, but run out often and tell students it is their responsibility to get their own mask for daily use.

Standing up to intimidation

We have a new CEO (which is what the Superintendent is called) who has used the same playbook of threats of no pay and intimidation during this round that likely comes directly down from the Mayor, Lori Lightfoot. Legislation passed in Illinois will lead to a future elected school board, but for now, the school board is hand-picked by the Mayor. The Mayor runs the district, and it seems her tough authoritarian and paternalistic line has been responsible for the lack of any movement on negotiations over the last six months. 

In the past, CPS hasn’t compromised or made reasonable offers unless we have taken actions like the one we are taking now. So my hope is that this action will force some concessions and that we can walk back into schools soon feeling cared for and reasonably safe with proper mitigations that will prevent COVID spread, sickness, and death. I am happy and hopeful that I have union siblings who made this important but difficult decision with me.