Chicago public school reopening battle rages on

As a winter storm descends over the Midwest, the battle over school reopening in Chicago heats up. Marathon negotiating sessions between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union continued Jan. 25 with little definite progress. Some 71 percent of CTU membership voted over the weekend to continue teaching remotely. At the heart of the reopening question is this: Why is Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot so intent on reopening schools as soon as possible when a vaccine is around the corner and the CDC estimates that 100,000 more people will die by Feb. 13?

On Jan. 25, kindergarten through 8th grade teachers were told to report back to school. Pre-K teachers and cluster teachers, who teach students with a significantly modified curriculum, were forced to go back into schools on Jan. 4. Teachers have found creative ways to protect their health, including by teaching outside of their schools. CPS pushed the return date for kindergarten through 8th grade to Jan. 27 after the strong vote from the CTU rejecting a return to schools. 

There have been several developments since the prior Liberation News coverage on the first wave of returns. The first and most significant is a new bill passed by the Illinois state legislature repealing a 1995 anti-worker law prohibiting Chicago educators from striking over working conditions. The bill has not yet been passed into law and still needs the signature of Illinois governor JB Pritzker. The status of this bill has been a key element in the messaging from both sides of the negotiating table. Because the bill has not been signed by the governor, CPS has said that any strike by teachers would be illegal. CTU has retorted that not only would a strike be legal under such circumstances, but that any CTU action to continue teaching remotely would not even constitute a strike because teachers will continue to work! 

It’s unclear why Pritzker hasn’t signed the bill into law yet. According to precedent, the newly elected Illinois Speaker of the House can take 30 days to set procedure and during that time many bills are held up before being sent to the governor. It is completely within the power of the governor to request any bill and sign it before the speaker formally sends it to him. What’s the hold up? 

Biden’s intervention into the issue speaks to the national importance of the CTU’s fight. In a televised press conference on Jan. 25, Biden talked out of both sides of his mouth. He said that we need to make schools safe, which we should. He said that teachers want to work, which is true. He said that schools require testing for everyone coming into schools, ventilation systems, thorough sanitization and plastic dividers. Biden placed special emphasis on testing saying, “We should be able to open up every school, kindergarten through eighth grade, if in fact we administer these tests.” The fact of the matter is that CPS’s testing policy is based on self reporting. Anyone can say that their child is not experiencing symptoms and send them back to school, regardless of whether their kid is actually sick or not. The language that Biden uses is being weaponized to support the farcical reopening “plan” of CPS. The devil is in the details and CPS is hoping to use Biden’s words against the union.  

Biden made other claims that support the case of CPS, namely that parents who can work are not working and staying home to take care of their kids. If we opened schools, according to Biden, parents could send their kids to the schools and go back to their jobs. This ludicrous claim is being used to justify school reopenings as part of a wider plan to “put America back to work again.” Working-class adults would go to work if they had jobs to return to. The issue is that there are no jobs! Adults who have a job are going to work and leaving their kids at home. This writer, a middle school teacher, can attest to the fact that kids are being left at home for most of the day while their adult or caregiver is out of the house at work. 

Biden and CPS’s out-of-touch and anti-worker rhetoric is being used to paper over a looming disaster. Reports from schools show a picture of chaos. Over 50 Chicago schools have reported cases of COVID since pre-K and cluster teachers and students were asked to go back in early January. There is a total lack of data about school ventilation. Teachers have submitted powerful testimonials documenting the myriad reopening violations in CPS. None of this has swayed the mayor and her appointees in CPS.

The union has asked teachers to continue to teach remotely after Jan. 28. Many questions remain: Will CPS lock teachers out of their Google accounts, thereby forcing them into a de facto strike? Will Pritzker expedite the passage of the bill to enable a legal strike by the union? In this battle of wills, who blinks first? Whatever the answers, Chicago teachers have made their position clear: The cause of labor is the cause of humanity.

Feature image: Picture taken by a Chicago Public School teacher and sent to the union. It is part of a documentation of CPS’s cleanliness violations. This shows a hallway with lockers torn out. CPS was asking students to return to hallways like this one on Jan. 25.

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