Chicago Public Schools

Half of Teachers Did Not Return to Chicago Public Schools as Ordered on Monday, District Says

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Just over half of all teachers ordered to report to Chicago Public Schools on Monday did not show up to prepare for in-person instruction as the district rolls out its reopening plan, CPS says.

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 Tuesday.

A total of 60.2% of all school-based staff required to return reported to work Monday, CPS CEO Dr. Janice Jackson said during a news conference Tuesday. That included 49.7% of all teachers and 70% of all paraprofessionals, she said.

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."

Monday marked the first day some teachers and staff were asked to return to schools as part of the district's phased reopening plan that calls for some students to return next week.

Pre-kindergarten and cluster program staff members were told to return Monday, for the first time since March of last year, with their students heading back to the classroom starting 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. 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 on Monday, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said over the weekend that about 1,800 asked for special accommodations and only about 600 received them.

While some teachers stayed home in defiance of the district, some bundled up and conducted remote learning sessions outside one school in protest against the district's plan.

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.

CTU 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.

"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.

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 Monday that educators who returned to schools reported "problems with cleanliness, safety protocols, ventilation and more."

Maldonado said other schools took action to the protest at Brentano 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 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.

On Sunday, 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.

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