Chicago coronavirus conflict: Parents vs. the school board
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said she wants the schools to reopen and she is caught between the need for children to learn on the one hand and the concern of their parents and teachers that they do so in a safe environment on the other. | Cliff Owen/AP

CHICAGO—The continuing nationwide conflict over reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic is pitting Chicago’s parents, teachers, and students, who don’t want to reopen for in-person learning until it’s safe to do so, against the school system’s big boss, Chancellor Janice Jackson, the Chicago Public Schools board and city Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who appointed both.

But it’s also an example of the national debate over whether and when to reopen, or keep open, schools, businesses, factories, arenas, and the economy in general, despite the again-rising numbers of illnesses and deaths from the modern-day plague.

And while most advocates for too-fast reopenings have been right-wing politicians and their backers—led by defeated GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla.—school superintendents and mayors have faced off against teachers, students and parents, too.

So the Teachers (AFT) local in Houston sued Texas to block too-quick on-site reopenings without safety precautions, and Education Florida, the joint National Education Association-AFT affiliate there, sued DeSantis and his state school board over the same issue. The Floridian teachers won.

In all the cases, the students, parents, and teachers prefer distance learning, by Zoom or Skype, as a way to keep education going until the school buildings are fully safe, with measures to prevent the coronavirus’s spread: Physical distancing, smaller class sizes, mandatory masking, gloves, sanitizers, and daily temperature testing, for starters.

Now the conflict has moved to Chicago, where Lightfoot, Jackson, and the board ordered in-person learning for special needs and pre-K students to start again on Jan. 11, with their 5,800 teachers ordered to report a week before. If they refused, they’d be subject to unspecified CPS discipline, a letter from school principals, quoting Jackson, warned teachers.

The Chicago Teachers Union, AFT Local 1, retorted by pledging to defend any teacher disciplined after refusing to report. The union has at least 25,000 teachers and support staffers, instructing 400,000 students.

“It will be a disaster for CPS to start firing teachers who refuse to go back,” union President Jesse Sharkey told the first of two Jan. 4 press conferences, a 6:30 a.m, session via Zoom, featuring teachers and parents. Another, at 4 p.m. on-site at Brentano Elementary School on the North Side brought other backers and restated the message: That the schools are still unsafe, that the reopening plan Lightfoot, Jackson, and the board approved is inadequate, and that parents don’t want it, either.

Teacher Kirstin Roberts told the first press conference she does not want to risk her life to keep her job. Music teacher Quentin Washington cited lack of coronavirus testing as a reason not to return.

“COVID cases have been reported in more than 300 Chicago public schools since the school year began, even before students have returned and while buildings are staffed by skeleton crews,” the union said in a statement, using the coronavirus’s official name.

“Over 700 workers have been infected with COVID, with the number of deaths mounting weekly. CTU members have filed hundreds of safety complaints with the Union since CPS forced school clerks and technical coordinators back into school buildings on August 26–including complaints from workers who’ve checked their classrooms in the last two weeks.”

Cafeteria workers, engineers, and custodians also had to go back in August, the union noted. And just before the Jan. 4 reopening, one worker who was forced to go back to Prosser Elementary School, and who later tested positive, died.

And a recent CPS survey showed overwhelming majorities of Black and Hispanic-named parents don’t want their kids to go back to in-person learning in schools until it’s safe to do so. Those parents care for 90% of Chicago school kids. Parents joined the teachers at both press conferences,

Some teachers have asked for waivers from teaching in-person, due to health risks. The school system has granted 850 so far and turned down the rest, the union said. One of those rejected was an unnamed teacher suffering from brain cancer, and receiving the debilitating treatments for it, CTU said.

There’s one more big problem with Chicago’s too-quick reopening of the schools, the union says: Money or lack of it.

“CPS has refused to commit any of the $800 million in new federal COVID relief to support the district’s overwhelmingly Black and Brown students, whose families have been hammered by COVID sickness and death since the pandemic started. The CTU has called on CPS to fast track the hiring of nurses since virtually no CPS school has a nurse on site more than once a week,” it added.

Last month, the union also took its case to the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board, the equivalent of the National Labor Relations Board, but for the state’s school districts and teachers. It sought an injunction to block the Jan. 4 reopening. But the IELRB voted 2-1 to hear the dispute on Jan. 26.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).