Due to skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and a lack of safety measures to keep schools open, the Chicago Teachers’ Union voted this week to move to remote learning. In response, Mayor Lori Lightfoot locked teachers out of remote teaching and threatened to put them on “no pay” status. Left Voice interviewed Hala Karim, a Chicago teacher, about the experience and what schools need in order to keep students and staff safe.
Left Voice: Where do you work?
Hala Karim: I am a 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts teacher at Curtis Elementary on the south side of Chicago in the Roseland neighborhood.
Why did you vote for remote classes? What has the coronavirus been like at your school and in the community?
I voted for remote classes for a couple important reasons. The most pressing concern of all is what our COVID data is looking like. Chicago is seeing a huge spike in cases; there are over 11,000 new daily cases in the city limits alone. Cook County, where Chicago is located, is deploying trailers because hospital ICUs are reaching capacity. Data points that would have terrified us a year ago have become completely normalized, thanks to our elected officials’ terrible priorities. Above all, they want parents back at work no matter the cost, so of course, teachers have to be in school to take care of their children.
That’s what we have been breathlessly arguing for over 18 months now. But the other pressing concern that I want to highlight is what schools have looked like since our return. To reiterate what we’ve said again, we all think in-person schooling is best, but we have to have resources, adequate staffing, and hygienic facilities. We don’t have these things. School has not been normal this year. Even before the surge, there has been a big substitute teacher shortage. There aren’t people to cover classes when a staff member is out, so what my admin has done is split classes. This means that they will take one class, split the kids into other classes and have the kids follow another class all day. This increases the number of kids in a congested setting and it also relegates teachers as babysitters. I walk into my building not knowing what to expect everyday. We are all trying to be as flexible as possible, but it can be very chaotic.
And, as I said, we don’t have proper mitigations in place. Our community has only elected to test 0.52% of our students on a weekly basis. A large majority of our students are unvaccinated. There’s no social distancing in our school, and our kids eat maskless in class and at lunch together. Aside from that, less than half of them properly wear their mask the rest of the day, and that number is steadily decreasing as kids become desensitized to living in a pandemic. Further, submitting positive test results is now voluntary, so I suspect that our school is vastly under-reporting the number of positive COVID cases there actually are. As I said, it has been so messy and so tiring. Remote learning is the best option temporarily until these numbers drastically decrease or the city decides to use some of those billions of dollars of relief money to give us resources to test and ensure our schools are safe places to be.
We’ve seen Lori Lightfoot demonizing teachers and the union, as well as locking teachers out of their remote classrooms and threatening to cut pay. What has the backlash been like?
I was awake pretty late the night that we democratically voted to go remote. I signed into my account around midnight, after Jesse Sharkey announced that we would be remote, and I was able to get in. Half an hour later, I saw a Facebook post that announced we were starting to get locked out of accounts. I checked, and lo and behold, I couldn’t access any of my work mail or tools. These are people that can’t fix technology issues for days and weeks, but they were quick to penalize teachers for wanting to stay safe. It’s interesting.
At my school, we began talking in our union chat GroupMe about what we should do. Luckily, my school has an incredible delegate who was ready to give us information in real time and meet with us on Skype to field our concerns. We were instructed by the union to email our admin from our personal accounts our intent to work remotely, which we did. In return, we received an email, one by one, saying that our remote work was not authorized. It turned out to be a boilerplate email that the district instructed admin to send employees. At the end of the day, we received the exact same email when submitting our work documentation.
The lockouts and the threatening emails and the media propaganda are just a few ways the district has been deploying scare tactics to divide us. But it’s day two, and we have had 88% of our union continue to commit to remote. I am reaching out to my colleagues to ensure that they stay remote, too. We are not getting paid at the moment, but hopefully by documenting our work, we have proof that we should be paid. I understand some members’ frustration and perhaps they are in dire situations in which they really need that full paycheck, but for the vast majority of us, we need to stay strong as a union. We walk out together and go back in together, and that’s how we get our safety demands met. The district is counting on playing us against each other, and we just can’t let them.
What has been the response from parents and students?
To be honest, I have been careful about contacting the parents at my school. I know some members faced discipline (later rescinded) for that last year, and I’m just trying to avoid it. But what I do know about the parents at my school is that they are very supportive and understanding. Many of them opted to stay remote last year even after the opportunity was given to them to go hybrid and return in person. But I have seen some pretty nasty comments all over the union’s Instagram page and Facebook page from parents or just random people who think we are lazy and selfish. It’s always the same type of comments. But my comment to them is, if you haven’t been in a classroom this year, I don’t want to hear it.
Students, right before we voted to go remote, could definitely sense something was in the air. First of all, 30% of their fellow students were absent. Many of their teachers were already out with COVID or other illnesses, and they did not have a normal post-break return. They were sent home with packets and asked me if school was being canceled. The lack of consistency and transparency for students has definitely had an emotional effect on them. They deserve much better from the people in power.
What would a safe reopening of schools look like to you? What is needed to keep staff, students and the community safe?
A safe reopening should include a huge increase in unionized staffing, a movement from privatized custodians to custodians represented by CTU (our schools are simply filthy), an increase in student vaccinations which would be greatly accelerated by using our schools as vaccination sites, and a plummet in COVID numbers. Again, the city has billions of dollars in COVID relief to do it, but they’re holding the money hostage or using it to pay their debts. They refuse to work with us.
How can teachers and other workers support you and each other right now?
I do think a mutual aid fund to support some teachers short term might be a great idea. I know our next paychecks are going to suffer a big blow, and we don’t know when or if we will be getting paid. We could also use some positive messaging on social media and all around solidarity.