CHICAGO — Despite a work order requiring public school teachers to return in person this week, Kirstin Roberts did not go into the Brentano Elementary Math and Science Academy, on the city’s northwest side, where she teaches preschool.
Instead, she cleared several inches of snow from the school’s courtyard, set up her laptop and taught her students remotely outside as temperatures dipped well into the 30s on Monday.
“I feel safer sitting outside and working than I do inside the building,” Roberts, 53, said, who along with several other teachers sat in the cold in protest of the order.
Chicago Public Schools phased in its reopening plan on Monday by requiring some teachers to return to schools to prepare for in-person instruction, but Roberts said conditions were not appropriate to reopen. She is now teaching from home despite receiving an email from the district that she is not complying with employee attendance expectations.
“Community spread is still so high in Chicago, and so many people are sick and dying. I don’t know how to keep myself safe in an old building with so many people," she said. “I don’t understand why we have to risk our lives when we’re so close to a vaccine.”
Roberts is not alone in her refusal to return to the classroom. Chicago Public Schools said that less than half of the teachers required to return to work on Monday showed up to classrooms, heightening frustrations as the nation’s third-largest school district is set to welcome back students next week.
The situation is emblematic of an ongoing push and pull between the Chicago Teachers Union and the city regarding reopening schools.
“We cannot sit back and allow this generation to falter because of made-up reasons around why we can’t do reopening,” Janice Jackson, CEO of the Chicago Public School system, said at a news conference Tuesday. “A year from now, there’s going to be a reckoning around what happened to those students sitting at home not being properly served because many of them have families who have to be essential workers.”
Of the 5,800 school-based staff members expected to return, including paraprofessionals, about 60 percent came back, she said, adding that the figure was "significant, considering the fact that they were pressured" not to return by the teacher's union.
While she said she doesn't want to fire teachers, Jackson said further noncompliance would result in disciplinary action. Under the union's contract, this includes being written up several times or suspended prior to termination.
Chicago will be one of the largest public school districts to fully reopen. New York, the nation's largest, has partially reopened some schools for younger students, while Los Angeles, the second largest, has remained remote.
Jackson said the school system has followed medical data and recommendations from the Illinois Department of Public Health, which has cleared the district's reopening plan. More than 77,000 students that have opted to go back to school.
But the Chicago Teachers Union said that it is not assured that conditions are safe enough to return to the classroom and that is has been largely left in the dark as the district forged a reopening plan.
“I do believe that the district’s claims around safety lack credibility,” Jesse Sharkey, the union's president, said at a news conference Tuesday. "We want to get back to a situation where we can be back in person but in a way that provides for equity, safety and trust."
Sharkey said that of the teachers who did go into buildings this week, 69 percent said conditions were still grim.
He said that those teachers have said that buildings were “filthy” and in “various states of disrepair,” and that air purifiers were not available or inadequate.
“Many of our members are not feeling safe at all," Sharkey said. "They are feeling more anxious and scared than ever.”
He said that teachers would continue to take a “principled stand” until they are reassured conditions are safe, and that the union was prepared to have a conversation on a possible strike vote over the matter.
The teachers union most recently went on strike in October over contract negotiations, which halted school for 11 days for the district's 360,000 students.
The union also stated that several of their Freedom of Information Act requests regarding metrics and staffing models used for the reopening plan had been denied. They only recently received information which was not clear, said Troy LaRaviere, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association
“Would you trust your life and your children's life with people who would be that deceptive?” he said at at news conference.
The teachers union enumerated several ideas for reopening safely, including making mass testing available; having clear public health guidelines around transmission rates; providing extra health resources to the most hard-hit areas; and creating a ventilation standard and a clear mask policy for students who don't bring one or refuse to wear one.
Negotiations between the district and the union are scheduled to resume on Wednesday, but the district has not indicated whether it is willing to alter its reopening plan, which will phase in all students through eighth grade by the end of the month.
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Despite the obstacles, Jackson said giving public school students an option to attend in person is a matter of equity as several other districts in the state, as well as private and parochial schools, have given students this choice.
It is unclear how the district will manage thousands of in-person students if teachers do not come back.
Roberts, who has been a teacher for 14 years, said she is planning on staying the course for the health and safety of her family and herself, despite being afraid of losing her job.
She also said that she is sympathetic to parents who want their children to return to classrooms and that she respects their decision.
“I understand what they are going through, and I’m not judging anyone,” she said. “But we are all being put in an impossible position right now.”