Chicago Teachers Pledge Collective Action as January Reopening Approaches

The second wave is killing 130 people per day in Illinois. So why are Chicago Public Schools reopening on January 11? Kelly Hayes talks with Chicago public school teacher Silvia Gonzalez about the perils of Chicago’s hybrid reopening plan and why “simultaneous instruction” simply doesn’t make sense.

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes.

A lot of people are on edge this week after hearing about a new strain of COVID-19 that could be up to 70 percent more transmissible than others. The new strain now accounts for more than 60 percent of all new cases in the U.K., and amid a troubled vaccine rollout, the idea of an even more transmissible strain of a highly transmissible and deadly disease has many of us shaken. This is especially true in Chicago, where teachers and students are expected to return to in-person classes next month.

In-person classes are set to resume for some students on January 11. On February 1, Chicago’s elementary and junior high classes will be hybridized, with teachers attempting to teach in-person and online, simultaneously. On Thursday, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board refused to grant an injunction against the reopening plan that had been requested by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), but Chicago teachers have refused to back down.

Teachers have presented a host of safety concerns, including the city’s positivity rate. The union has argued that public schools should not reopen until the city’s 7.4 percent positivity rate is under 3 percent. Teachers have also expressed great concern about the quality of so-called “simultaneous instruction,” wherein masked teachers will be instructing students in-person and remotely at the same time. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration says that remote learning has been unfair to Black and Latinx students, who are being set back by the shortcomings of long distance instruction. But only about 37 percent of Chicago students plan to return to school next month, and the majority of them are white.

Lightfoot quietly extended the city’s existing stay at home order by 21 days on Sunday, meaning classes will resume for some students only one day after the order expires.

Having reviewed the city’s reopening plan, I already found it incredibly troubling, prior to hearing about this new strain of COVID-19. And after hearing about what’s happening in the U.K., where people are about to spend Christmas on lockdown, I am alarmed. But I am not the person best equipped to explain why the plan was already terrible, or what’s at stake, so I want to welcome my friend Silvia Gonzalez to the show. Silvia is a Chicago public school teacher and organizer who actually created a guide to help parents and teachers understand the risks of the mayor’s reopening plan. Silvia Gonzalez, welcome to the show.

Silvia Gonzalez: Hi, Kelly. Thank you so much.

KH: How are you doing today, friend?

SG: I’m making it through. And I’m also, like you mentioned in the beginning, looking at [Chicago Public Schools (CPS)] has plans to reopen, and have a lot of concerns about the myths and the facts that are being published by CPS and the videos that are being put out by CPS that, quite frankly, continue to just really make me question what safety is going to look like when and if we should return. So that’s what I’m grappling with these days.

KH: So first thing’s first, can you tell us a bit about the mayor’s reopening plan for Chicago Public Schools, or CPS, as we tend to call it here in town, and why Chicago teachers are so concerned?

SG: For me, one of the things that I’ve been really trying to get across is the day-to-day logistics and what that’s gonna look like for educators, and also what that’s gonna look like for our students who are going to show up and are probably going to be nervous and afraid. And that’s not an equitable learning condition to be found in. This new format of hybrid and remote model is not sustainable. It will burn out teachers. It is a very challenging thing to just sort of say, “Okay, well then just teach the students remote and teach the students hybrid at the same time. And by the way, you have a week to prepare for this.” I find it to be really destabilizing for our students that are now being asked to essentially risk and adapt according to what CPS believes is best.

But the reality is that, according to the way the schedule is set up for an A and B hybrid model, students would only be in classes two days out of the week; their classes, as they know it, would not resume as they know it. They would be sitting six feet apart from their peers, masked for the entire day. And we’re talking about K through eight students. We’re talking about young people who miss their friends, young people who will no doubt need help from their teachers. Young people who will no doubt, probably need to go to the restroom plenty of times

And so to ask a student to adapt to this and to take a risk during their lunch period, during which they would be taking off their masks to eat in a classroom, just doesn’t make any sense when we’re talking about restaurants and small businesses closing. None of this, for me, makes sense.

And so, on top of that, I’m really concerned about the social and emotional needs that will arise with the trauma of knowing that their normal teachers will not be coming back. A lot of the teachers have been taking leaves due to pre-existing conditions and they have every right to do so. So they will not be in front of the students. There have been other teachers who are afraid to come back and are considering resigning. So what we’re asking teachers and students to do is to adapt to a completely irrational plan in the middle of the school year.

KH: I keep hearing people say Dr. Fauci supports reopening schools, but unless he has reviewed Chicago’s actual plan, and can say that, under the conditions we have, that it’s safe to reopen the schools, I am thoroughly unconvinced. Because we are not talking about some generalized example of a school system. We are talking about a school system that was already in crisis, due to austerity and neglect and privatization efforts, where teachers were already being forced to clean their own classrooms prior to the pandemic. We are talking about broken down buildings, and a school board that has a history of covering up unsafe conditions. All of these generalizations from federal officials about districts, and buildings with vastly different challenges and capacities — in matters of public health, I want specificity. Because austerity mayors like Lori Lightfoot obviously cannot be trusted to oversee our children’s safety. She fought to keep the city open as long as possible last winter. The governor had to step in and shut things down. Then she reopened the bars in November and we saw an immediate, corresponding boom in cases. Lori Lightfoot’s decision-making around when it is safe to do things during the pandemic has been uniformly terrible. She allowed a demolition in Little Village that created a dust cloud that consumed the whole neighborhood — during a respiratory pandemic. She wants open businesses, open schools, and a resumption of normality, as though we aren’t still living in a horror movie.

The Biden administration is actually promising funding for schools, to help make them safer, and I don’t necessarily believe him, but if people do believe him, they should be screaming to high heaven that Lori Lightfoot needs to wait. And with this new strain, it’s just unthinkable.

SG: Right. So I want to take a moment to shout out the efforts of the Chicago Teachers Union, because part of what they’ve been petitioning and asking the mayor and our elected officials to consider is if they really want to reopen.

If they really have the best interest of our students and teachers and staff in mind, they need to consider three very important things: first and foremost, safety. Establishing a clear public health criteria. If you want to open this up, we have to be very clear on how safety is established. We can’t just be told that classrooms are safe and they’ve been inspected. CTU has asked CPS and the city to get involved in how the schools are screened, how they’re looked at. And so, to really have an opportunity to be at the table with folks that are making the decisions for teachers and students. And from what I’ve heard, we’ve been denied that opportunity. CPS and the city believed that that’s an, um — sort of like we’re over overstepping our bounds. CTU has asked for equity, CTU has asked for trust.

And that’s sort of where I was talking about that CTU, CPS joint committee on COVID-19, which would include independent experts, and can make inspections, investigations, and issue directives. CTU has also proposed for a safety committee in each school, that involves the members, the engineers of the buildings, the delegates. The people that are most familiar with these school buildings on a day-to-day basis are not being allowed to sit at the table and help inform these decisions. And so how can we have trust in what the mayor is saying or what CPS is asking for us to do in the middle of winter months? Keep our windows open, right? Like some schools don’t even have properly installed windows.

So, these are just some of the things that I know CTU is really working to bargain, but for my understanding, there hasn’t been a whole lot of collaboration and meeting in the middle, which is very concerning for me.

KH: One thing I cannot get past is that the shortcomings of remote learning are being held up as reason to resume in-person classes, even though most students will still be learning remotely. Most Black and Latinx students, who the mayor keeps mentioning, will keep learning remotely, because their parents do not want to send them back yet. And we know remote learning has already been a struggle for teachers and students. So won’t piling on simultaneous instruction, where teachers are interacting with students in the room, and livestreaming to students at home, make remote learning harder for students at home?

SG: Yeah, and I think even on a day-to-day basis, while we’re sitting and debating, teachers are trying to continue to adapt to remote learning. And so that’s sort of where I’ve been asking the question, “Have we even taken the time to resolve the issues of remote learning in order to best prepare for a hybrid model?”

And the answer is no. We get thrown these tests that we have to take online in order to meet certain expectations. We got one, we got an email this past Friday telling us that we needed to go through another training online. And so for me, it’s like, that’s not really preparing us for what we’re going to be coming into qualms with.

Do we have a solid understanding of the equipment or the technical support needed to be effective teachers, when we’re doing the hybrid model? Do we even have that now? Do we have the proper equipment for students to be doing their work at home, now? Are students ensured stable living conditions? Is our city meeting our basic human needs first, before they ask us to go back, risk and adapt to a model that’s completely disastrous in my opinion? The way that I’ve experienced, even the day to day, you know, having to be flexible and having to figure things out on the fly. If we can’t figure out how to make remote learning equitable, and we can’t figure out how to make it sustainable for students now, what right do we have to demand that students go back and figure things out in the middle of the school year? You know, part of the petition of the CTU has also been to consider our schools and students diverse needs and to adjust remote learning schedules so that students have less screen time, to allow more experiential, asynchronous learning, to provide more materials and resources for use at home, and to build in more time for educators to collaborate with colleagues and parents and caregivers. And that’s just been flat out denied, where it’s like we’re being told that we’re asking too much, that we’re being unreasonable. Unreasonable for who, when we’re talking about equity, and using that as a phrase as a city and saying, “Well, we really care about our black and Brown students, and they’re the ones that are being put at a disadvantage.”

Well, when we’re putting these demands out, are we still putting them at a disadvantage by asking that they have the appropriate tools to continue their education in a time of a pandemic? Like, that’s the thing that just continuously blows my mind that we’re teaching and learning at the height of a pandemic, when I have to go to meetings and do moments of silence for colleagues that have passed on, when I have to get a surge of emails telling me that there’ve been new cases of COVID in our larger CPS schools, right? Like, I don’t know if people are aware, but without students even being in the building, CTU has documented over 500 reports in schools.

That’s a huge number and that’s without even being in school. When we look at the data of the increase of COVID cases, we’re literally asking teachers to choose between job and life. We’re asking students to choose between safety or what the mayor and other folks believe is in their best interest. And quite frankly, when I have moments of conversations of this with students, they’ve all stated, “Yeah, we want to go back, but we want the pandemic to be over.”

Nobody — kids are very fully aware that their family members are getting sick, that their family members are dying, that people that they know are being harmed by this pandemic. And, I’m not even just talking physically only. I’m also thinking about the distress that this has brought on to people, the trauma, the emotional strain. And if we can’t figure out how to deal with that now, while students have been remote learning, I have some serious questions about how we’re going to do that with a hybrid model.

KH: The Chicago Teachers Union has gone toe-to-toe with mayor Lightfoot in the past. Lori Lightfoot, who ran on a progressive platform, and swore there would not be a teacher’s strike on her watch. And in 2019, we found out that was a lie. The Chicago Teachers Union also had to threaten to strike to prevent in-person classes in the fall of 2020. So can you say a bit about what it’s been like for you as teachers to interact with this mayor?

SG: Am I allowed to just say, “Thumbs down! Just overall, not very good.” No, I’m sorry. I just, I guess if I have to give a more eloquent response is, I’m very disappointed, but I’m not surprised, you know? I think that she ran on a progressive platform and made a lot of promises, but then when the teacher’s strike came and went, she showed her true colors. She really showed where her position stood, and that was not with the working-class families that we have to work with on a day-to-day basis. That’s not with the teachers that are part of forming our city and making our city as great as it is. And so for me, knowing that somebody that was elected is harnessing that much power and using it in such a destructive manner, not really looking out for the folks of Chicago, I’m extremely disappointed. I don’t really know how else to, how else to express that. And I think what’s been more disappointing is that CTU is asking to sit at the table, is asking to not be quoted for having had 42 meetings. No meeting in the middle, right? Like, nobody can come to a consensus.

I’m looking for — Look, if you had 42 meetings, couldn’t you have already come up with 42 different solutions and like put the ego down. We’re talking about people’s lives here. We’re talking about people’s livelihoods. We’re talking about Chicago being a majority of working class folks. Right?

The minute I saw the way that the CARES Act funding was being used and the way in which policing was heightened in the city of Chicago, I knew that there is no best interest in our public education. This mayor prioritizes policing and has other priorities that are not — you know, one of the things that CTU brought up was Lincoln Yards and the TIF money. If that’s not enough of a witness to the ways in which she believes our money needs to be allocated instead of supporting our working class families and supporting public education, I don’t know what else to point to.

KH: What are you most afraid of personally, right now, as you all are faced with the prospect of reopening?

SG: You know, Kelly, I feel like you’ve known me for some time. I’m, I try to keep my joy, I try to guard my joy. But these days I’m afraid. I have some real fears and sometimes even expressing those makes me more fearful because I don’t feel understood. I feel like the data has not been enough. And as someone who has to sit during a virtual vigil and look at the faces of people that have passed as a result of COVID, is terrifying. The thought of seeing myself or my colleagues as a part of a slideshow, the thought of having a moment of silence with my students is terrifying. How are we expected to perform the day-to-day duties when everything is happening all at the same time, in the middle of a pandemic? How can I best support the young people that I love and do the work that I adore, knowing everything is on fire right now? And that for me is a fear I try not to sit too long with because I will very quickly spiral.

And I just think, at the end of the day we don’t want to strike. At the end of the day, the Chicago Teachers Union, we don’t have a constant, like, strike and battle mentality. We want the best for our students. We want the best for our colleagues. We deserve that much and more. But we want our students to be safe. We want these fears to be diminished. We want to have some sort of normalcy. We want to have some sort of comfort, even with everything that’s going on. So, you know, this kind of is a breach in our contract. This doesn’t follow the safety that we require in our contract. So, we don’t want to strike first. We want to have the best interest in mind and really say, “Hey, we’re looking for safety. We’re looking for equity. We’re looking for trust. This is what that would look like. This is, these are our lists of demands. Is there a way we can meet halfway? Is there a way we can put the interest of our students first? And what would that look like? Can we meet at the table and have some of these things discussed in a way that’s respectful, and honestly just has our livelihoods at the top as priority?”

I don’t think that’s too much to ask for, but I do think that what I’ve mentioned in terms of my fears, those are the things that I’m afraid of, that we just won’t be able to do that. Most of us are just tired. So that’s sort of where my fear is at, that we’re just very quickly burning out. But I don’t want to lose hope. I don’t want to lose my joy. I want to guard it and I want to support my students, come what may.

KH: So what can people do to show solidarity and support right now?

SG: You know, I think just holding our elected officials accountable. Right now, the Chicago Teachers Union has their list of petitions on the CTU Local One website, where you can also enter your return address and start writing a letter that will directly be sent to your alderman and elected officials. And so I would really ask that folks take a few minutes out of their day to sign this petition which is asking our elected officials to stop the reckless reopening plan. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board issued a preliminary ruling not to impose an injunction. Yet the plan that CPS has put out is forcing pre-K and special ed cluster students. And so we’re asking folks to please take some time and ask our elected officials to raise their voices and demand safety and equity, so that when we do whatever the case may be, we want to know that our city has our back.

And so for me, I don’t know, I always, I’m always like, I don’t know, just put the word out. I feel like not enough people know what this really looks like. And I think that that’s really irresponsible to blindside our parents and families and CPS constituents, and just give them this very pretty plan that sounds decent, but like, without really having the precaution of, “…but also keep this in mind,” right? And so I just want people to have as much of the full scope of information as they can and continue to have these discussions with each other, continue to sign these petitions, continue to ask that our mayor do better by our city.

KH: Well, thank you for that. And we’ll definitely be linking that petition and other resources in the show notes, in the transcript of this episode on our website at truthout.org. I’d also just like to remind folks, just really everywhere in the country, that it’s not enough to say that the federal government or Biden or Fauci says that our schools should reopen. All of us should know what reopening plans in our area consist of. All of us should know about the conditions on the ground that children and students are being expected to negotiate with because it’s an abdication of responsibility to speak to something as vast and varied as the U.S. education system without any specificity. You can be very educated and also completely ignorant of a situation, and no one is exempt from that reality.

So I hope that we will look at what’s happening and also process that we really don’t know what’s happening with this new strain yet. And with some students slated to return on January 11th, I think we need to be responsible. I think we need to do the opposite of what Trump did last winter and say, “This new strain is serious. We don’t know how serious. But we are going to prioritize life.”

So I hope we all support our teachers as they advocate for their safety and the safety of their students. This is not a time to keep grinding people under to keep capitalism afloat. This is a time to insist that our survival comes first. Silvia, I want to thank you so much for joining us today and for everything that you’re doing.

SG: Thank you, Kelly.

KH: I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes:

You can find the Chicago Teachers Union petition to halt Lori Lightfoot’s reopening plan here.

You can find Sylvia’s fact sheet on hybrid and remote learning in Chicago here.