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Lightfoot ‘does not have the guts to close schools,’ Chicago Teachers Union claims as it protests plan for in-person classes in CPS this fall

With Chicago Public Schools parents facing a deadline days away to opt in or out of in-person classes this fall, parents and teachers in Chicago and across the country are calling for schools to open safely or not at all.

In Logan Square Monday morning, a group gathered to share their concerns about CPS’ tentative fall plan — a combination of in-person class and remote learning. Adults and children united in a circle, holding multicolored streamers adorned with butterflies. Some had black wings, representing lives lost to COVID-19.

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Sandy Viveros, 28, said she is disappointed in the plans CPS has provided and doesn’t yet feel comfortable sending her children, ages 5 and 10, to school.

Black butterflies with messages are displayed next to a banner at a gathering in Logan Square in solidarity with the National Day of Resistance for safe, healthy and equitable schools. The black butterflies represent people who have died from COVID-19.
Black butterflies with messages are displayed next to a banner at a gathering in Logan Square in solidarity with the National Day of Resistance for safe, healthy and equitable schools. The black butterflies represent people who have died from COVID-19. (Raquel Zaldivar / Chicago Tribune)

“They’re not really giving us enough information about what their safety (plan) is going to be. And also, I’m here because my kids are not an experiment, that’s basically what they’re trying to do,” Viveros said.

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Martha Escogido, a Logan Square Neighborhood Association parent leader who has seven children, lost her husband this summer from COVID-19. Escogido was unable to attend the rally Monday because she had to work, an organizer said. She sent in her speech to be read as a testimony.

“The past two months have been very difficult,” a speaker read on Escogido’s behalf. She wants to see a realistic plan for school in the fall.

A 7-year-old boy addressed the group in Spanish, saying he doesn’t feel safe going back to school. The boy said he loves school but cherishes his life more, according to a woman who translated his remarks into English during the rally.

CPS asked families at the end of last week to let them know by Friday if they plan to enroll their children in the hybrid learning plan floated last month or continue learning from home. A district communication said they sent text and email messages to parents and guardians, asking them to complete a form by Friday “to ensure schools can plan effectively.”

The Chicago Teachers Union and others participated in a caravan protest Monday against Chicago Public Schools' fall plans.
The Chicago Teachers Union and others participated in a caravan protest Monday against Chicago Public Schools' fall plans. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)
A woman rallies outside Chicago City Hall against plans to reopen CPS schools after Labor Day.
A woman rallies outside Chicago City Hall against plans to reopen CPS schools after Labor Day. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

CPS has not yet released its final plan, leaving parents to either choose based on the draft version or wait to see if the final one comes out this week. Plans are due to be finalized this week.

Though students who opt for the hybrid model can switch to remote learning at any time, those who start the school year remotely will have to wait until the second quarter to switch to hybrid classes. CPS officials have stressed that they will only reopen schools if it’s safe but also that schools will likely need to reopen at some point before any COVID-19 vaccine is fully rolled out.

District leaders proposed the hybrid plan knowing schools may have to close again. Chicago Department of Public Health authorities have said CPS should consider all-remote learning if there are more than 400 cases daily in the city using a seven-day rolling average. CPS CEO Janice Jackson last week also alluded to an 8% weekly positivity rate, and though the city is below that now, at 4.8%, some of its ZIP codes are higher.

Monday’s protest organizers noted the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on Black and Latino people. In Logan Square, one speaker said many of the families present live in the 60639 ZIP code where “we have a lot of families who tested positive.” Nearly 4,000 people in the ZIP code, where about 90,000 live, have tested positive for the virus, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The Chicago Teachers Union, which also hosted a protest and caravan to City Hall Monday, has strongly advocated for a remote-only start to the school year, as several other suburban and big-city districts have decided to do.

Monday’s events were part of a nationwide action for equitable schools, demanding no in-person school “until the scientific and public-health data supports it.” The campaign is also pushing for police-free schools, adequate staffing of counselors and nurses, safe conditions including lower class sizes, and more community support for families.

Yet many parents have also expressed support for reopening schools in some capacity, with some skeptical about the quality of remote learning after their experiences in the spring. In Chicago, a July poll of 660 CPS parents commissioned by an education advocacy group showed that 40% of parents believed schools should stay remote only, 35% favored a hybrid or partial reopening and 19% supported fully reopening, while 6% didn’t know. The poll was commissioned by Stand for Children Leadership Center and conducted by Tulchin Research.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey on Monday said it’s not appropriate to have in-person learning “in an environment with raging contagion,” and that the union won’t stand for it.

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“The mayor does not have the guts to close the schools,” Sharkey said outside CTU headquarters. “They’re putting it on us to close the schools. That’s what we feel like is happening.”

Asked about Sharkey’s comments, the mayor’s office released this statement later Monday: “Since COVID-19 first reached Chicago, we have made a firm commitment to base our policies and initiatives on the science and data of this disease, and to communicate decisions to our stakeholders in an open and transparent way,” the mayor’s office said. “This is the same approach that CPS has taken all along in engaging all the relevant stakeholders in the school community. The data will drive this decision.”

At the union rally, Andrea Parker, a teacher at Fulton Elementary, said that having a plan for “if” something happens at a school is not enough.

“It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when, and I do not want to be the when. I do not want my students to be the when,” Parker said. “I do not want to be the sacrificial lamb because you’re forcing us to go into an environment that is dangerous.”

Already in Indiana, a student at Greenfield-Central Junior High School tested positive on the first day back to school last week.

Even remotely, schools in Chicago have been dealing with deaths of students, parents and educators.

A student at Kelly College Prep and at least four parents of students at the school have died from the virus, said Gustav Roman, an English teacher.

“We have just an extreme amount of loss that our school community is facing,” Roman said.

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Rather than spend time and resources planning for both hybrid and remote options, CPS should focus on making remote learning as good as it can be, the teachers union has argued.

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Melanie Hidalgo, 22, a university student who helped her 11-year-old brother with online schoolwork during the spring, attended the Logan Square rally to push for remote learning.

“It wasn’t impossible,” she said.

The groups headed to City Hall in separate caravans to continue their protest.

By noon, the protesters had converged near City Hall, many wearing Black Lives Matter shirts and holding signs calling for police-free schools. A DJ mixed soul and funk music until a news conference began.

CTU member Norma Noriega honored the life of Caleb Reed, a 17-year-old activist who was shot to death over the weekend.

“Let his passion ignite something in you and continue to fight for the freedom of future generations,” Noriega said.

Noriega said there was no way the union would agree to send students back to in-person learning this fall.

“This time it’s no longer a metaphor, no longer an analogy,” Noriega said. “We are being sent to die if we go back into those buildings.”

Lakesia Collins, a Democratic nominee for Illinois’ House of Representatives, said she worries about her son, who has asthma, returning to school.

“Schools should not reopen until scientific data says it’s safe to do so,” Collins said. “That means ensuring that all communities, no matter the ZIP code, have access to the resources they need to complete the online learning.”

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson called it “pitiful” for Lightfoot’s administration to plan to reopen schools.

“When Black unemployment has run through the roof, the only thing she can do is TikTok and dance and tweet at Trump, while we got problems right here in the city of Chicago,” Johnson said. “We are now in a moment where it is very clear who our allies are and who our enemies are. Whoever would risk the lives of Black and brown children, you got to see them as an enemy.”

After delivering the demands to the mayor’s office, 25th Ward Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez said: ”We are tired of platitudes and excuses. Her failed policies continue to put our young people or children at risk. Today we told Mayor Lightfoot it’s enough.”

hleone@chicagotribune.com

chrjohnson@chicagotribune.com

ayin@chicagotribune.com

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