The first round of Chicago Public Schools students returned to classrooms on Monday as part of the district's plan for all students to eventually return to in-person instruction as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
"What this all boils down to is giving families the option to make the best decision for themselves," Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Friday, noting 77,000 families have indicated to CPS they want their children to return to the classroom. "Many of whom rely upon their school communities to make sure that their children get a warm meal and a safe place to be so they can fulfill their God-given talents."
Lightfoot addressed claims about poor building ventilation and lack of PPE, saying the district spent $8.5 million to equip every classroom and front office with a HEPA filter and to provide masks and other needed equipment to ensure safety of teachers, students and staff.
The mayor said she felt confident about the district's ability to support students on Monday and going forward.
"We are doing everything that we can to place safety in this pandemic at the front and center of what we are doing," she said, "and using the learning from other schools' experiences to our benefit, but importantly, to the benefit of our school community."
Pre-Kindergarten and cluster program students returned to classrooms for the first time since March of last year, according to the district's phased reopening plan.
Last Monday marked the first day some teachers and staff were asked to return to schools in preparation for a return to in-person instruction. But CPS revealed Tuesday that just over half of all teachers ordered to report to schools on Jan. 4 did not show up.
A total of 60.2% of all school-based staff required to return reported to work on Jan. 4, Jackson said during a news conference. That included 49.7% of all teachers and 70% of all paraprofessionals, she said.
Should teachers and staff continue to not report to schools as expected, the district may begin a progressive discipline policy that could lead to their firing, CPS' CEO indicated last week.
Jackson said that the 60% figure was "significant, considering the fact that they were pressured" not to return by the Chicago Teachers Union, which has repeatedly expressed safety concerns over the district's plan to return to classrooms as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
Jackson noted that approximately 83% of employees were present on the first two days after winter break in early 2020, which she said was the district's typical attendance expectation.
"We have sent notices to staff who did not return to ensure that our expectations are clear. And we are optimistic that more staff will report to work in the coming days," Jackson said. "If staff choose not to attend and support the students who are relying on them, we will handle those on a school-by-school and case-by-case basis."
CPS sent emails to all individuals who were expected to return to schools yesterday but did not swipe in, Jackson said, to ensure the district hadn't missed anything and to reiterate the expectations. She noted that the district intends to "continue to remind individuals who don't report to work of our expectations."
But, Jackson noted that CPS has an "absent without leave policy" in place, through which "individuals who are refusing to report to work and who will be considered absent without leave will face progressive discipline," repeating that it would be on a case-by-case basis.
When asked if that progressive discipline policy could lead to firings, Jackson demurred.
"It is a progressive discipline policy. So we hope that by reminding folks of the expectations - look, at the end of the day, it serves no one's interest to fire teachers, so I'm not going to lead with that," Jackson said. "But we do have a clear policy around expectations to return to work. We should also be reminded that thousands of individuals in our school system have been reporting to work since the pandemic began: our nutrition support staff, our principals and administrators, some central office staff, as well as security and others throughout the building."
"We fully expect teachers to be treated the absolute same way as any other employee. If they are in essential functions, we are asking them to come back to work and failure to do so we will follow the progressive discipline process."
While pre-K and cluster program students returned on Monday, 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. No date has been set for high school students, who are expected to continue with remote learning under the district's reopening plan.
Of the roughly 5,000 teachers ordered to report to school buildings last week, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said over the weekend that about 1,800 asked for special accommodations and only about 600 received them.
The district's reopening plan has been met with resistance from CTU and elected officials over concerns that the district does not have a comprehensive coronavirus testing and contact tracing program, among other issues.
CTU said that educators who returned to schools reported "problems with cleanliness, safety protocols, ventilation and more."
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 said they were still worried for themselves and their students.
"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.
Previously, more than 30 Chicago aldermen signed a letter to Jackson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, 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.