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As COVID Surges, Teachers in Chicago Are Up Against a Wall of Neoliberal Cruelty

Chicago teachers are voting on proposed terms for in-person learning amid Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s neoliberal governance.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union listen to speakers at a press conference outside of John Spry Community School in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood on January 10, 2022.

The struggle between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot over how the city’s public schools should be operating in the face of the current COVID-19 spike has been a case study in neoliberal governance.

One in four COVID tests taken in Chicago are currently coming back positive and the majority of potential exposure locations in Illinois are schools, according to the Illinois Department of Health and to Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, who was appointed by Lightfoot herself.

In response to this spike in school-based COVID-19 transmission, a majority of the members in the Chicago Teachers Union voted in favor of the union taking action by switching from in-person to remote teaching until a list of specific safety demands have been met. The union’s demands included KN95 masks for teachers and students, and mandatory testing for students and staff before returning to the buildings on January 18. Union members voted in favor of this action after looking at the hard data on COVID in Illinois schools and considering the current lack of proper equipment in the classrooms to reduce transmission of COVID. As a result, we started using the school district’s online platforms to connect with our students, just as we did in March 2020.

Last night, on January 10, members of the Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates voted to suspend the remote-learning action, and the union’s rank-and-file members will take a vote this week on the current agreement with the Board of Education regarding a return to in-person learning after a week of working remotely from home.

The union delegates voted to suspend the remote-learning action and hold a rank-and-file vote on next steps after the city reportedly made concessions in relation to the teachers’ demand for expanded testing, metrics for when schools need to go remote based on student absences or staff issues, funding for PPE and contact tracing protocols.

Throughout this process, the mainstream media and political elites in Chicago have responded to teachers’ concerns by claiming that the actions of Chicago’s school workers are flippant and greedy. Yet in reality, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her appointed Board of Education have been blocking students from accessing safe instruction during a time when COVID cases are surging and schools have been shown to be major vectors for transmission.

The statistics on COVID-19 exposure in Illinois schools are not propaganda. They are real data that should lead to immediate action to keep Chicago’s students and their families safe from the current surge in COVID-19 cases.

Instead of working with the teachers and staff to ameliorate the threat of COVID, the Chicago Board of Education, appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, locked students out of their online platforms, forcing schools to essentially close while Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Chicago Teachers Union negotiated on the current proposed agreement for in-person learning.

Suburban districts, those with elected school boards, have taken action and made the move to online learning during this crisis.

What has been happening in the city of Chicago is not a strike. The Chicago Teachers Union has been asking for the online tools they need to hold classes virtually until CPS takes action to ensure the safety of our students, or until the current surge in cases subsides.

One major impact of the surge is staffing shortages. The Chicago Teachers Union is pushing the district to hire more staff to ensure proper guidelines for COVID safety.

However, throughout this struggle Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her hand-picked Board of Education have once again shown that they’re not willing to negotiate for what’s best for students and staff. In her short tenure as mayor, Lightfoot forced the longest teachers strike in more than 20 years, over her reluctance to fully staff schools with nurses, counselors and social workers.

This current struggle did not start with the Omicron surge. It started as soon as Mayor Lightfoot took the helm of the third largest city in the nation, and with it, the third largest school district. In 1995, the Illinois General Assembly put its full trust in the mayor of Chicago to appoint the Board of Education and have total purview over the schools, power that suburban and rural mayors don’t have. It was during the Republican takeover of the state capital when the newly invigorated Illinois GOP saw potential in Democratic Mayor Richard Daley to shrink crucial spending, break the union and privatize large swaths of the district. He appointed Paul Vallas, a municipal hatchet-man who was not a licensed superintendent, to be the new “CEO” of schools. This allowed Daley to hatch his plan “Renaissance 2010,” a program that would push the union out of the majority of Chicago’s schools with the full support of the business and finance communities in Chicago and across the nation. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has shown through the 2019 contract negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union that she favors cuts to student services, much like Daley.

Lightfoot, much like her predecessor Rahm Emanuel, fought tooth-and-nail to hold onto this power as communities made it clear that they wanted a school board that was elected and accountable to their needs, more like the suburban districts that are now implementing remote learning to protect their students and teachers.

There is hope on the horizon, with a law that will go into effect in 2024 that will phase in an elected school board for Chicago. However, how many more students and staff will be exposed to COVID in the next two years?

Without this kind of accountability baked into the system, teachers, clinicians and school paraprofessionals have taken the lead and created a list of demands for a safer return to in-person learning. When you have a leadership vacuum in city hall, working people will take on leadership and that is what has been happening in Chicago. The Chicago Teachers Union’s action was a case of workers taking action for their own safety and the safety of Chicago’s children and their families.

Mayor Lightfoot could have made the decision not to lock out teachers, keeping students away from daily instruction, but to instead trust in the wisdom of teachers and staff, who make decisions daily to keep themselves and students safe.

Mayor Lightfoot is not an educator, nor a leader. She’s a corporate lawyer who wants to win her will at any cost. Either she doesn’t look at the data, or she defies it in her pursuit of forcing her charges back to the schools — doing as she says. Meanwhile, her Board of Education meets remotely.

The current struggle is a symptom of the larger problem of neoliberal school reform — a virus whose only vaccine is democracy.

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