Thousands of Chicago Teachers Refuse Return to In-Person Learning

In protest, teachers at one school set up makeshift workspaces in a courtyard to teach virtual classes in below-freezing temperatures.

Thousands of Chicago Teachers Refuse Return to In-Person Learning

CHICAGO, Ill. — Thousands of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teachers refused to return to their classrooms Monday due to health and safety concerns and a lack of trust in the district’s implementation of coronavirus mitigation protocols.

Approximately 5,800 teachers and other staff members who teach preschoolers and some special education students were expected to return to their schools on Monday, marking the first in-person classes in CPS since March, reports The Chicago Tribune. An estimated 6,500 students are set to return next week and students in kindergarten through eighth grade are expected to begin returning to in-person learning on Feb. 1.

“We’re afraid for our lives. We don’t want to lose our jobs. The fear of losing our jobs is real. Many of us are the sole income earners in our homes,” CPS teacher Lori Torres said at a news conference. “But the fear of this virus is greater than that fear.”

Of the employees who were expected to report inside their school buildings Monday, approximately half refused. An additional 850 staff members who were due back were granted leave or an accommodation exempting them from in-person teaching.

At Brentano Elementary Math & Science Academy in Logan Square, teachers and clinicians protested their required return to their classrooms by setting up makeshift workspaces in the school courtyard to teach virtual classes amid freezing temperatures, according to The Chicago Sun-Times. CPS organizer Jhoanna Maldonado maintained a fire pit on a sidewalk to help keep teachers warm.

CPS human resources chief Matt Lyons sent an email to employees who did not return, stating their absence was not authorized and they “must begin reporting to work in-person tomorrow.” CPS also said employees who do not return will be disciplined but did not elaborate.

Teachers who did return to their classrooms reported a wide range of conditions, from no issues to cramped spaces with poor ventilation. On the Side South, approximately 20 clinicians who serve students with hearing and visual impairments reported to a school that had been turned into a CPS office.

The clinicians, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Chicago Sun-Times they had to set up in an old gymnasium with dirty surfaces, bad ventilation and only one working window out of more than a dozen. After the employees complained, they were sent home and a cleaning crew was sent in. According to spokeswoman Emily Bolton, the clinicians were sent to the school in “error” and have since been given a new location.

One of the clinicians said they are still required to report to the new location even though most of their students have chosen to remain remote. For the children who choose in-person, clinicians could visit several schools and multiple student pods within that school on any given day.

“A lot of us are concerned about being a vector, traveling between pods and exposing people,” the clinician said. “It’s just rough that your employer does not care about your health and safety.”

In stark contrast, one employee who works with special education students at a school on the West Side reported an abundance of air purifiers, plexiglass barriers, and signs promoting social distancing.

“The schools seem as clean as ever,” the employee said. “I felt safe, I felt fine. But kids weren’t there yet. Once you walk into a classroom with 12 kids, how do you keep them separate?”

The Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) has argued for months that returning to in-person learning is not safe, particularly due to the uncertainty of a possible post-holiday spike in coronavirus cases.

On Monday and Tuesday, CTU hosted news conferences to make its case for why it is unsafe for teachers and students to return. Several teachers discussed their fears and decision for choosing to stay out of the classroom. However, the union received severe criticism last week when executive board Sarah Chambers, who has openly argued for schools not to reopen, posted photos of herself on vacation in Puerto Rico.

On Monday, Bolton said health officials have approved the district’s plan to return to in-person learning and that the CTU’s “last-minute tactics are deeply disrespectful to the 77,000 mostly Black and Latinx families who selected in-person learning.”

According to CTU, data shows the majority of students who have chosen to remain remote for the rest of the school year come from Black or Latinx families.

“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,” added Bolton.

About the Author

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Amy is Campus Safety’s Senior Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy’s mother, brother, sister-in-law and a handful of cousins are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

In her free time, Amy enjoys exploring the outdoors with her husband, her son and her dog.

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