Chicago Public Schools teachers bundled up and conducted remote learning sessions outside one school in a sort of protest against the district ordering some staff back into schools on Monday despite safety concerns as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
Teachers at Brentano Math and Science Academy on the city's Northwest Side sat at socially distanced tables outside the school, wearing masks and full winter gear as they taught classes virtually.
Chicago Teachers Union organizer Jhoanna Maldonado said the teachers outside were from several different grade levels, teaching outside in support of pre-K staff who had been ordered to return to the school to prepare for in-person instruction.
"There’s a variety of teachers here supporting the pre-K staff that is supposed to be in the building who is refusing to go in and is teaching outside remotely," Maldonado said, noting that Brentano was empty on Monday with 100% of the staff either teaching remotely from home or from outside the building "in solidarity" with pre-K teachers.
Thousands of CPS pre-kindergarten and cluster program staff members were ordered to return to classrooms Monday in accordance with the district's reopening plan, which has been met with resistance from CTU and dozens of elected officials over safety concerns.
Students in those programs will return to classrooms on Jan. 8. Staff members for kindergarten through eighth grades will be back in school buildings on Monday, Jan. 25, followed by their students the next Monday, Feb. 1, per the district's plan.
In-person instruction will be an option for students, whose families can choose to continue remote learning. The plan also calls for high school-aged students to continue remote learning for the foreseeable future.
Of the roughly 5,000 teachers ordered to report to school buildings on Monday, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said about 1,800 asked for special accommodations and about 600 received them.
Maldonado said other schools took similar action Monday morning, though the response varied by school. She said Brentano teachers had were "highly organized" and had both a resolution from their local school council and the backing of parents, some of whom dropped off hand warmers and coffee.
"We know that CPS is trying to divide and conquer our staffs and it is schools like this and many others who have signed, 10,000 people have signed a pledge to support teachers if there is any retaliation against them and we’re willing to take whatever actions we need to take if there is retaliation today," Maldonado said.
In late December, CPS supported an open letter in the Chicago Sun-Times from 17 physicians who stated returning to school was safe, adding that they "cannot understate the serious psychological harm that prolonged virtual school has had on many children."
Despite the reassurance from health officials, some teachers remain worried - not only for themselves.
"I'm scared for my health," said teacher Lori Torres. "I'm scared for the safety of students and their families."
In a statement, CPS said overwhelming scientific evidence, expert guidance and experiences of districts across Illinois show schools can safely reopen with a plan in place.
"The CTU has not identified any area where the district’s plan falls short of public health guidelines and CTU’s last minute tactics are deeply disrespectful to the 77,000 mostly Black and Latinx families who selected in-person learning," the statement continued.
On Sunday, more than 30 Chicago aldermen signed a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson, listing nine steps they want the district to take before students return to class. The suggestions included establishing a clear health criteria for reopening and improving technology for those who continue with remote learning.
The school district released an eight page response Sunday in which it addressed the concerns brought up by the aldermen.