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Chicago Teachers Union Warns of ‘Resistance' if COVID Safety Measures Not Improved

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Chicago teachers are threatening to "step up resistance" if safety measures aren't heightened at city schools after the new year began in-person this week.

Classes started Monday with no agreement in place between the union and Chicago Public Schools district.

"Reports of safety failures at public schools have been pouring in from across the city since students started returning on Monday," the union said in a release Thursday morning.

According to data from CPS, at least 39 schools have reported at least one COVID case in the last week.

The union tweeted Wednesday that hundreds of its delegates were meeting "to discuss returning to buildings and next steps."

"Safety in the age of COVID is contingent on ensuring that every mitigation layer works in sync in schools to protect students, educators, staff and families," the union said in a statement. "But one or more of those mitigations — social distancing, masking, testing, vaccines, working ventilation and more — have failed at schools across the city."

As COVID cases continue to rise nationally, multiple schools across Illinois have reported outbreaks in the days since the fall school year began.

The Illinois Department of Public Health on Tuesday identified 26 schools with COVID-19 outbreaks.

Glenbrook Elementary School in the Cook County village of Streamwood, which is complying with the governor's mask mandate, reported between 11 and 16 related cases of COVID-19, the Chicago Tribune reported.

“Due to a COVID outbreak in a fourth/fifth split grade level classroom, we shifted to Distance Learning for this classroom only,” Glenbrook principal Cheryl DeRoo wrote to parents last week.

The classroom is closed until Sept. 7, DeRoo said.

Meanwhile, nearly 100 students were in quarantine earlier this week after at least 17 tested positive for coronavirus in Sycamore Community School District 427.

"A large portion of those quarantines were due to what the local [health department] identified as an 'outbreak' at our Middle School," Supt. Steve Wilder told NBC 5 in an emailed statement.

The outbreaks reported by the state health department include those that have at least two COVID-19 cases among people who may have a shared exposure on school grounds and come from different households.

A few of the schools reporting outbreaks have been put on probation by the state for ignoring Gov. J. B. Pritzker’s mask mandate.

The Chicago union has previously said CPS is stripping some COVID safety measures that were put in place last year.

For instance, temperature checks will no longer be done in schools, unlike in the spring. Instead, parents will be asked to check their students for COVID-19 symptoms, and four times a year parents will sign a form to indicate they're performing such screenings.  

"This week, the district safely welcomed back all of our students for full-time, in-person instruction after a period of unparalleled educational and social-emotional disruption," CPS said in a statement. "Our protocols are based on guidance from health officials and science — there is no appetite for escalating tensions after immense uncertainty regarding reopening. With teacher attendance at pre-pandemic levels on the first day of school, it’s clear that our educators are overwhelmingly ready to be back with their students. This year no doubt requires more adjustments, for which the district and schools have been preparing for months. As a result, our schools are and remain safe. We will continue to work with the CTU in good faith and keep parents informed of any notable updates.”

It remains unclear what the union's heightened resistance would mean, but Chicago's top doctor was asked about school conditions earlier this week.

“Schools are doing everything they can here truly to work to keep these settings as safe as possible but I’m truly committed for more than a year to having kids in person in school," Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said.

Addressing crowding concerns and a lack of social distancing seen in photos circulating on social media, Arwady said similar scenes have been reported across the U.S., "even before a vaccine was available."

"And somewhat to people's surprise, we didn't see that driving major outbreaks," she said during a press conference Tuesday. "There will be cases don't get me wrong, but I expect no cases to broadly track what we're seeing in the general community among COVID. There's also going to be a lot more testing of children I expect, so in that setting we'll probably see an increase of cases because we're doing a better job of detecting kids who may be asymptomatic or very mildly symptomatic. So those numbers will also go up for that reason, but I remain, you know, based on absolutely everything we know, really convinced that we absolutely can be in school safely."

Arwady encouraged vaccinations not just for teachers, who are now mandated by the city and state to get vaccinated, but for students ages 12 and older.

The city's health department will soon offer $100 Visa gift cards to anyone 12 and older who gets vaccinated. Gift cards will be available starting on Saturday at mobile vaccination events, and on Tuesday for at home appointments, officials said.

Illinois also announced this week it was deploying a team to Southern Illinois University Carbondale to help vaccinate higher education students ahead of a statewide mandate.

"The state is also reaching out to community colleges and other higher education institutions across Illinois to make similar vaccination programs available on their campuses," the governor's office said in a release.

The state plans to deploy rapid response vaccination teams starting Sept. 2. Vaccination clinics at SIU-C will be offered at the SIU Student Center and will administer the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the two-dose Pfizer vaccine.

“Vaccination remains the most important tool we have to keep people safe and out of the hospital, and I’m committed to making the free COVID-19 vaccine as accessible as possible,” Pritzker said in a statement. “My administration is working with the entire Illinois higher education landscape to ensure they have the tools they need to support a healthy campus."

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