COVID-19Militant Journalism

In Chicago, teacher-community solidarity forces district to put safety first

The combined power of a strong teacher’s union, parents, and community groups forced the nation’s third largest school district to back down over a potentially disastrous school re-opening plan. On July 17, Chicago Public Schools announced that students would return to school after Labor Day with a hybrid model: two days of in-person instruction, one day of remote learning and two days of independent study. The district held several online community meetings where they presented the plan and solicited feedback, and asked parents to decide whether they would send their children back to school.

Parents were skeptical. “No, I wouldn’t have sent her back,” Cindy Ok, mother of a special needs student at Vaughn Occupational High School told Liberation News. “I never had any faith that CPS could ensure safety. I didn’t trust CPS. I didn’t trust the staff to be trained. I didn’t trust the bus company, and I didn’t trust Aramark [the private contractor used for janitorial services] to do adequate cleaning.” With COVID-19 cases rising in Chicago, especially in Black and Brown neighborhoods, Ok did not feel that in-person schooling was safe.

That sentiment was echoed by community leaders. “No one trusts CPS to do what’s right. It’s not like we are out of the woods [with COVID-19],” Erica Clark, a former CPS parent and founding member of the activist group Parents 4 Teachers, told Liberation News. “This plan shows how out of touch they are.” School cleanliness and privatization of services had been important issues raised during an 11-day teachers’ strike in October 2019.

Other parents agreed. CPS’s polls at the end of their community meetings showed that up to 70 percent of respondents were ‘very uncomfortable’ or ‘somewhat uncomfortable’ with the plan. Opposition to the plan started to coalesce. Chicago Teachers Union “members on social media started saying ‘no this isn’t going to work,’ and started asking what the plan actually looks like,” Katie Osgood, a special education teacher at Suder Montossouri and member of the CTU’s Executive Board told Liberation News. “They pushed our leadership into action. They listened to the rank and file, the parents and the community.”

As part of the August 3 National Day of Resistance, CTU and several community organizations held a car caravan and protest to demand that CPS not open schools until it was safe to do so. The protest attracted approximately 500 cars and 100 pedestrians, according to the CTU. Their demands also included the removal of the Chicago Police Department from public schools, as well as community supports such as a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, direct cash assistance to those who are unable to work, childcare for essential workers and computers and WiFi for all students.

CTU officials, teachers, parents, students and community leaders spoke out at the rally and on a Facebook livestream. “We need to do a plan for remote learning to keep our students safe,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. “Many working class communities are suffering. We also demand assistance for the struggling communities in this city. Safety and life itself is at stake.”

The teachers who spoke out all said they felt unsafe going back into the classroom. Gustav Roman, who teaches English at Thomas Kelly College Prep, said one student and four parents at his school had died of COVID-19. “If you’re fearing for your life, you can’t learn. The students are scared,” he said. CPS parent and community activist Joseph Williams said: “They’re choosing money over our children’s health. Money over our family’s health. … You just can’t put children back in school and hope everything’s going to go well.”

The following day, the CTU called for an emergency Executive Board Meeting. The local media started speculating that the union would convene a strike vote. “The American Federation of teachers had put out a resolution that they would support any locals that had to strike for safety,” Osgood said. “So nationally they had our back.”

One day later CPS backed down and announced that schools would be all remote for the first quarter. “The union, community, and parents together made the case that the evidence was overwhelming. CPS was not ready with a pandemic in place,” said Osgood. In a letter to parents, CPS noted that in a district where approximately 82 percent of students are Black or Latino, only one in five Black and Latino families planned on sending their children back to school in person.

“I think it was very powerful when parents showed up and said unequivocally it’s not safe,” said Osgood. “CPS ignores the CTU but they can’t ignore the families.” CPS’s turnaround shows what can happen when unions and community members work together. “Our interests were aligned. CPS thought they could win. They thought they could separate the CTU and parents,” she said. The capitalist class will always try to divide the workers, but with working class solidarity, we can win.

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