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CTU Says Some Chicago Public Schools Teachers Won't Be Returning Monday; Majority Of Aldermen Sign Onto Letter Expressing Safety Concerns

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Some Chicago Public Schools teachers were expected to return to classrooms Monday morning to prepare for in-person learning, which resumes a week from Monday for some students.

But COVID-19 is still a concern.

Thus, the Chicago Teachers Union on Sunday said a substantial number of teachers will not be returning to in-person work on Monday on the grounds that schools are unsafe. But as CBS 2's Steven Graves reported, CPS is doubling down – saying the move is needed for students' sake.

"As CPS educators mourned the COVID death of another school clerk forced back into unsafe working conditions this fall, rank and file CTU members across the city are rejecting CPS' effort to force thousands more back into unsafe buildings beginning this Monday," the CTU said in a news release. "That includes CTU members who are parents — and who have also elected not to send their children back to unsafe buildings."

The current plan calls for school doors to open for pre-kindergarten and special needs students on Monday, Jan. 11 -- though students can opt to remain remote.

Kindergarten to eighth grade teachers go back Jan. 25, while those students can return Feb. 1.

In mid-December, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board rejected the Chicago Teachers Union's plea for an injunction to keep kids from returning to classes until terms can be reached through collective bargaining between the union and CPS.

The pushback against in-person preparation now is palpable.

"I am standing in solidarity with my staff," said fourth-grade teacher Lori Torres.

The CTU is even drafting letters of defiance for concerned teachers. It is not clear how many, but the union said COVID-19 is top of mind.

Now, the CTU said reopening without "guaranteed safety protocols" is not acceptable and teachers will not be returning to work on Monday a week ahead of the students' return. Teachers at Brentano Elementary Math & Science Academy, 2723 N. Fairfield Ave., will hold a public teach-in at the school on Monday on the issue.

Other actions to raise awareness about COVID-19 related safety issues in schools are planned through the week. The CTU noted that this all comes in the wake of the death of a school clerk at Charles A. Prosser Career Academy, 2148 N. Long Ave., from COVID-19 last week.

The CTU said CPS wants to "force pre-K and special education cluster teachers back into buildings" on Monday – a date that falls six days ahead of Mayor Lori Lightfoot's current stay-at-home advisory, and before any concerns about a COVID-19 surge related to the holidays can be evaluated.

The union also said CPS has refused to commit to any of the $800 million in new federal COVID relief. The CTU has called on CPS to fast-track the hiring of nurses, as well as counselors and wraparound supports to help students deal with the trauma of the pandemic.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said vaccinations for teachers and school employees should begin in February. The union has called for fast-tracking vaccinations for school workers, as well as students and families in areas with high COVID-19 positivity rates, but accused CPS and the city's School Board of refusing to bargain over the issue.

The CTU also said evidence is growing that schools can be significant sites of coronavirus infection and spread.

Torres said right now, the plan is not right for her or her three children. She said she is hearing from other teachers.

"I don't think it's safe," she said.

CTU leaders have said a strike is not out of the question.

In response to the union, CPS on Sunday issued a statement saying all scientific and expert evidence indicates that indeed schools can safely reopen with precautions taken:

"The overwhelming scientific evidence, expert guidance and experiences of school districts across Illinois are clear: schools can safely reopen with a comprehensive plan in place. The CTU has not identified any area where the district's plan falls short of public health guidelines and the CTU's last-minute tactics are deeply disrespectful to the 77,000 mostly Black and Latinx families who selected in-person learning. It is the district's expectation that teachers without an accommodation report to work tomorrow, just as principals, custodial staff, engineers, and food service staff have throughout the entirety of the pandemic."

CPS said the district has been planning for reopening since schools first closed in March, and have said health officials are confident in the plan. CPS also said most educators who have been asked to return to work in person on Monday did not apply for an accommodation, and any educators who have a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recognized medical condition can still work from home.

Meanwhile, more than half of the aldermen in the Chicago City Council signed onto a letter Sunday expressing serious concerns about the plan to return students to in-person schooling after months of virtual learning.

In the letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Dr. Janice Jackson, the aldermen noted that COVID-19 has "posed unique and significant challenges" and noted the stress that remote learning places on working families and educators.

"However, we are deeply concerned that Chicago Public Schools' current plan for students and staff to return to school buildings does not meet the district's objective of increasing equity for students, and fails to adequately address a number of safety concerns identified by parents, students, and staff in light of the ongoing pandemic," the aldermen wrote.

The aldermen wrote that despite a CPS survey showing Black and Latino parents largely want their children back in in-person learning, the CPS reopening plan has not won the confidence of many of those parents. The aldermen also noted, in a development the called "equally distressing," that the families of white students indicated that they planned to return their children to in-person learning at twice the rate of the families of Black and Latino students.

"CPS has bigger things to worry about, and it's not sending Black and Latinx students to die," said Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th).

In the letter, the aldermen urged CPS to take certain steps to ensure that in-person learning is safe, including establishing and promoting clear public health criteria for reopening schools and sharing a plan for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.

"The safety-related metrics with which our constituents are most familiar relate to the positivity rate (currently hovering near 9%) and the daily number of new cases (regularly exceeding 1,000). These numbers do not adequately account for the neighborhood-specific hotspots where COVID-19 struggles are most pronounced (the positivity rate in 60632, for example, currently exceeds 16%)," the aldermen wrote. "Moreover, these numbers may well increase in the coming weeks and continue to exceed the benchmarks of 5% positivity and 400 new cases to which our city's public health leaders pointed earlier this year as warranting concern."

The aldermen also noted that many Chicagoans are not familiar with the CPS danger benchmark of infections doubling in fewer than 18 days, and do not know about the CPS contact tracing plans for teachers and students.

The aldermen also called for improved technology infrastructure for remote learning, reduced screen time, and opportunities for learning that don't depend on technology.

"Such opportunities include arts-and-crafts projects that reinforce what students are learning in other subject areas like history and reading; building structures using available household items such as Legos, blocks, paper, and/or cardboard; and scavenger hunts in- or outside of the home where feasible," the aldermen wrote.

Further, the aldermen called for better planning around hybrid learning; engaging with principals and Local School Councils to develop plans for individual schools, and advance notice for clinicians such as social workers and speech therapists as to which students will be learning remotely and which will be in person.

"In addition, CPS should ensure that these clinicians are subject to the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, at least in part to protect against the use of basements, hallways, and other poorly ventilated areas for providing services," the aldermen wrote.

The aldermen also called on CPS to provide decisions on applications for Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations in a timely fashion, clearer guidelines for paid leave rights for teachers, and regular updates on the hiring of 2,000 new employees who will handle pandemic-related responsibilities.

The aldermen also called for greater collaboration between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union for planning remote and in-person instruction.

"Our city's educators know first-hand the challenges that students are facing, and should be a co-equal partner in crafting a reopening plan that is feasible and safe, and that prevents burnout during these challenging times. We have been alarmed to see, read, and hear consistent testimony from educators expressing their profound frustration with the status quo and how it hinders their ability to do their job," the aldermen wrote. "Accordingly, we ask that you improve upon existing instructional models through additional, fulsome collaboration and bargaining with CTU."

"This is not a last-ditch effort," Taylor said. "This is us saying we thought they would use common sense."

CPS also issued a response to the aldermen's letter, addressing concerns one by one. CPS said public health criteria have been updated throughout the pandemic along with science, and positivity rates and daily cases are not as meaningful as once thought when it comes to deciding whether to reopen schools.

CPS noted that there have not been major outbreaks in the more than 90 Chicago Archdiocese Catholic schools that have been open since the fall, or in 3,000 local daycare centers.

CPS also said doubling time in Chicago when it comes to COVID-`19 cases is 96.2 days, far more than the 18-day danger threshold set by the Chicago Department of Public Health.

As to technology, CPS said the district has undertaken "unprecedented" efforts to facilitate remote learning, but it has not been enough, and in-person learning is needed.

CPS also said it has invested millions of dollars in air purifiers and sanitation, and students will be placed in smaller groups or "pods."

CPS went on to say it is already addressing the other concerns brought up by the aldermen.

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The letter issued Sunday was signed by Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), Ald. Sophia King (4th), Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), Ald. Marty Quinn (13th), Ald. Edward Burke (14th), Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), Ald. Stephanie Coleman (16th), Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th), Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd), Ald. Silvana Tabares (23rd), Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th), Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th), Ald. Felix Cardona Jr. (31st), Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd), Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th), Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), Ald. James Gardiner (41st), Ald. Matt Martin (47th), Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), and Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th).

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