Chicago Public Schools students across the city on Friday left their classrooms in protest over COVID safety concerns, some of them ending up downtown to protest outside of CPS headquarters.
"Many of us are worried about not only our health, but our teachers’ health, our janitors’ health, even our administration’s health," said Ana, a student who walked out.
Many students said they would prefer to be remote learning because of the recent spike in COVID cases.
"There is no way that my school can ever truly be safe," said Lux, a student who walked out, "which is why we’re calling for a choice of learning. We think it should be a choice whether you can be hybrid, remote or in-person."
Hundreds of students gathered outside the CPS headquarters building downtown, while students at schools from Senn High School on the city’s North Side to Solorio Academy High School on the Southwest Side spoke out.
"We need to take a stance now," said Ivan, a student who walked out. "Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe."
Students said they deserve to be included in conversations about their safety during this pandemic.
After four days of missed instruction, CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union concluded negotiations, and students returned to in-person learning on Wednesday. However, some students said CPS and the teachers' union neglected their concerns.
Organized by Chi-RADS, Chicago Public School's Radical Youth Alliance, students from at least 30 schools were expected to walk out Friday afternoon.
As part of the full list of demands from Chi-RADS, students are asking CPS to provide every student with a personal laptop, personal tutors outside of school hours and fully funding for arts programs, among other requirements.
A letter detailing the latest COVID safety protocols went out to CPS families Thursday, which included information on the newly agreed upon KN95 masks available to students and staff from the city.
“Our goal throughout this entire process was to both get our students back to in-person learning as quickly as possible, and to prevent work disruptions for the rest of the school year," Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said during a Monday press conference.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey called the negotiations "unpleasant," and said that while the agreement was less-than-perfect, the union should take pride in the deal made with city officials.
"It’s not a perfect agreement, but it’s something we can hold our heads up about," he said during a Monday press conference.
Monday evening, CTU announced that its remote-learning move would be suspended because of the agreement, with a vote by the union’s rank-and-file members on the proposed agreement expected this week.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said that the new agreement comes with new metrics for when a classroom or school needs to go to remote-learning, depending on student absences or staffing issues.
The city also added new expanded testing, with a big boost from the state, and there will also be additional funding for new PPE and other materials for schools, along with new contact tracing proposals, according to Lightfoot.
Classes were canceled for more than 300,000 CPS students for four school days after teachers voted to switch to remote learning last week in defiance of threats by Lightfoot that educators would be committing an "illegal work stoppage" by doing so.
Sharkey defended the decision to vote for the switch to remote learning, saying that the union had raised numerous concerns to CPS over the summer and fall, to no avail.
“It became clear to us that the Board of Ed didn’t want to bargain with us about a lot of the key safety features that we felt we needed,” Sharkey said.
Sharkey said it was a gradual process of seeing cases increase, along with the city's hesitance to install more robust contact tracing and testing protocols that led to the discussions of a switch to remote learning.
“The omicron variant emerged in late November. It came fast, and it came to a school system that did not have the trust, nor the mitigations nor the operations in place to deal with it properly,” he said.
Approximately 73% of teachers had voted in favor of a switch to remote learning, but some teachers who didn't support the move continued to report to schools.
City officials had argued that schools are safe with protocols in place. School leaders have touted a $100 million safety plan, including air purifiers in each classroom. Roughly 91% of staff are vaccinated and masks are required indoors.
This story features reporting by the Associated Press.