Welcome to our blog about Chicago’s school reopening. Prekindergarten and special education “cluster” teachers returned to campuses Monday, while about 1 in 3 students are expected to return Jan. 11. The bulk of the district’s returning 77,000 students are supposed to return Feb. 1. Chicago has not set a date for high school students to return.
Here’s the latest.
Friday, Jan. 8, 5:00 p.m.
A deputy general counsel for the Chicago Teachers Union said Friday that it is “illegal” for the school district to withhold pay from teachers who don’t report to work on Monday as assigned.
In an afternoon press call with educators and clerks, Thad Goodchild responded to a warning from district leaders that pay would be withheld from pre-K and special education teachers who don’t return. Earlier in the day, district officials said about 65% of teachers were reporting as requested, an increase from the start of the week.
“Employees have a right to decline an unsafe work assignment and to make themselves available to continue working in the same manner as they have the past 10 months,” Goodchild said. “Educators who exercise their rights to continue to work remotely are entitled to be paid for that work. It is illegal for CPS to withhold their pay as they are threatening to. It doesn’t sound like equity to me and it doesn’t sound legal.”
Friday, Jan. 8, 9:00 a.m.
In strongly worded remarks Friday morning, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson said schools would be fully operational Monday for the 6,000 preschool and special education students who’ve selected to return. Despite decisions by some teachers to not report to campuses this week, Jackson said the district had seen an uptick in teachers who returned to schools as the week progressed. Read more here.
Thursday, Jan. 7, 5:30 p.m.
Contrary to fears that COVID-19 will strip early learning classrooms of everything but desks, preschool children will still find plenty of play items when they return to classrooms Monday, Chicago Public Schools’ early learning chief, Bryan Stokes II, said Thursday afternoon.
Stokes was the first district official in the spotlight in a new “Ask an Expert” series on reopening coproduced by the school district and University of Illinois at Chicago. (Next week is the district’s chief medical officer Kenneth Fox.) He did so as thousands of pre-K students are expected to return.
He said that stuffed animals, sand tables, and other play elements that cannot be easily sanitized on a daily basis will be removed from classrooms. But teachers can still make use of centers, book nooks, and other regular features of preschool classrooms.
Some Power Point presentations circulating around social media to Chicago parents show rooms stripped bare of everything but a desk. He described a different setup.
“There will be blocks, there will be puzzles, there will be all of the activities that teachers create,” he said. “There will be differences — but at the same time kids have already adapted to many of those differences. In a classroom setting, being able to engage with a teacher will be hugely beneficial.”
In response to parents’ questions about whether their children’s classroom teachers may get shuffled midyear, Stokes said it’s up to individual schools. There are many variables, from how many students at a particular school choose in-person learning to how many teachers at a school are granted accommodations.
Wednesday, Jan. 6, 1:10 p.m.
With the city’s teachers union now putting vaccinations on its demand list, where will Illinois teachers fall in line for vaccinations — and when?
In a news briefing, Gov. J.B. Pritzker shared more details about the next phase of the state’s vaccination plan, called 1B, which is to include educators and child care workers as well as adults age 65 and over. There’s still no exact forecasts on timing, but he said that phase 1B should launch within the next few weeks and that the City of Chicago — which controls its own vaccine distribution — will have authority to set up sites particularly for teachers.
Supply is currently the biggest hurdle, with the state about a quarter of the way through its first phase (1A) of health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. So far, Illinois has administered 207,106 vaccinations.
Wednesday, Jan. 6, 12:30 p.m.
The reopening conversation is spilling over into new venues, with word that Chicago City Council’s education committee will host a reopening hearing at 10 a.m. Jan. 11, opinion pieces in the Chicago Tribune taking aim at the union and urging for reopening to proceed as planned, and a flurry of resolutions calling to delay reopening from the school district’s Local School Councils.
At least 19 councils have passed resolutions asking the district to delay reopening. The letters are symbolic because the representative bodies, made up of parents, teachers and community members, don’t have authority to change how instruction is delivered.
But they are a sign of the increasingly politicized spaces that councils have held in the last year in the wake of the votes on whether to retain school police.
In a letter to council members, Guillermo Montes de Oca, head of the council office, said it was important that schools “allow each family to decide if they are ready to return to their schools.”
Parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand is collecting council letters here.
Some schools have held council meetings to discuss the resolutions. More than 100 people logged into a virtual council meeting Sunday at McPherson Elementary in Ravenswood, reaching participant restrictions on Zoom.
The discussion included a parent representative asking other parents not to send their kids into school to protect the health of teachers, and the principal explaining where sick students would wait in the school, if necessary. The council passed its resolution.
Tuesday, Jan 5. 5:35 p.m.
The Chicago Teachers Union said Tuesday afternoon that it wants to delay the start of in-person school until staff can receive at least one dose of the vaccine.
In a new list of demands, the union said it would also consider moving forward on a reopening agreement if the district offered teachers a voluntary return to in-person learning and provided weekly testing for in-person educators. If the district agrees to delay school reopening for a vaccine, the union said it would suggest extending school until the summer.
It’s not clear yet when teachers will be vaccinated.
The union previously had called for the city to establish a 3% positivity threshold for reopening decisions. Union attorney Thad Goodchild said the proposals shared Tuesday offer Chicago Public Schools an alternative path toward an agreement on school reopening.
Chicago’s COVID-19 rate is currently 10.6% but district officials said they are using a different reopening metric that considers “case doubling time” — the number of days it takes the number of newly diagnosed cases to double.
As the first wave of teachers returned to school this week, the district and union said they had increased the number of bargaining sessions, even as both sides have continued to criticize the other.
Tuesday, Jan 5. 8:30 a.m.
District officials presented staffing numbers showing that half of the Chicago Public Schools pre-kindergarten and special education teachers and about 70% of support staff who were expected to return to school buildings Monday did.
Schools chief Janice Jackson called the turnout significant given what she described as pressure from the district’s teachers union not to return to work — and she said she believes more employees will start coming to school buildings in the coming days.
Jackson insisted a written accord with the union is within reach, a statement that Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates challenged. Read more here.
Tuesday, Jan 5. 6:30 a.m.
In a first joint appearance of the two groups, Troy LaRaviere, the head of the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association, joined a morning press call with Chicago Teachers Union leadership to critique the city’s reopening plan. He urged school district leadership to consult principals before moving forward.
“We’re the ones who have to implement the plan,” said LaRaviere, a former principal. “Ask any hospital administration who has been successful at keeping doors open safely, they’ll tell you they brought in anyone involved,” from administrators to custodians.
A Monday survey by the association of 300 principals and assistant principals, a fraction of its larger membership, showed that 22% of respondents said they had the staff they needed to reopen safely” and 17% said reopening in January and February was the right decision, with 64% saying the district timing was wrong; 19% of survey respondents did not answer that question.
LaRaviere said his membership wants to see joint bargaining between the district, its principals, and its teachers; a differentiated return timeline based on school readiness; a pool of cadre substitutes and staff dedicated to each school to fill absences and help with administrative tasks; and a public metrics threshold for when schools should be opened or closed. They also want a reconsideration of simultaneous instruction — when the district asks educators to teach remotely and in-person at the same time, similar to the city’s Catholic schools.
Anecdotally, principals’ reactions were mixed, he said. “Principals are not a monolith,” said LaRaviere. “For the most part, you have a big group of folks in the middle who are very frustrated and upset but not quite frustrated or upset enough to risk their employment.”
In the joint call, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said that during a Monday evening call of 2,400 pre-K and special education cluster teachers who were asked to report back to work that day, 49% said they did not report to buildings. The district has not yet said how many teachers reported to work Monday.