CHICAGO (CBS) — It was supposed to be back to the classroom Monday for thousands of Chicago Public Schools teachers and staff, but some of them are refusing to do so because they don’t feel safe returning to school buildings, and the Chicago Teachers Union says they shouldn’t have to.

The union held an online press conference Monday morning, on the day teachers and staff who serve preschoolers and some special education students were slated to return to school buildings.

During that meeting, some teachers said they already signed letters to their principals letting them know they won’t be in the classroom on Monday.

“They need to see my mouth,” teacher Linda Perales said. “If I put a face mask on, and I’m teaching from the building, … how are my students going to learn their letters and their sounds?”

That’s one of the reasons why some teachers say going back to school buildings doesn’t make sense.

They said, depending on the classroom, being masked and teaching students won’t work. They also argue school buildings are unsafe, and that the safety measures the district says it has implemented – such as air purifiers – aren’t enough for every building and classroom.

CPS is planning to bring preschool and some special education students back to classrooms next Monday, Jan. 11, with teachers and staff scheduled to be back in school buildings today to begin preparing for in-person classes.

In-person classes for Kindergarten through eighth grades are scheduled to resume Feb. 1, with those teachers scheduled to return to classrooms on Jan. 25 to prepare.

“The fear of losing our jobs is real. Many of us are the sole income earners in our homes, but the threat of this virus is greater than that fear,” teacher Lori Torres said.

On Monday, CPS Chief Executive Officer Janice Jackson shared photos about the road to the “safe return to in-person instruction.”

At the same time, the CTU tweeted photos saying that staff don’t feel safe.

In response to the union, CPS on Sunday issued a statement saying all scientific and expert evidence indicates that indeed schools can safely reopen with precautions taken:

“The overwhelming scientific evidence, expert guidance and experiences of school districts across Illinois are clear: schools can safely reopen with a comprehensive plan in place. The CTU has not identified any area where the district’s plan falls short of public health guidelines and the CTU’s last-minute tactics are deeply disrespectful to the 77,000 mostly Black and Latinx families who selected in-person learning. It is the district’s expectation that teachers without an accommodation report to work tomorrow, just as principals, custodial staff, engineers, and food service staff have throughout the entirety of the pandemic.”

CPS said the district has been planning for reopening since schools first closed in March, and have said health officials are confident in the plan. CPS also said most educators who have been asked to return to work in person on Monday did not apply for an accommodation, and any educators who have a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recognized medical condition can still work from home.

Meanwhile, as CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey reported, medical experts are looking to other districts for guidance.
Several of the largest school districts across the country have already shifted to blended models of in-person and e-learning. Medical experts said community infection rates need to be watched very closely for schools to reopen.

Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine epidemiologist Mercedes Carnethon has reviewed CPS’ own detailed plans.

“I think that this time is the right time,” she said.

Carnethon pointed out other districts across the country – and in Illinois – that have taken advantage of blended learning models in recent months.

“We haven’t seen large-scale shutdowns of entire schools. There have been cautious approaches to closing down when case rates started to get very high in the community,” she said. “But overall, we have not seen reports of School based outbreaks that have exceeded the background rate in our community in Chicago.”

Nationwide, for example, Miami-Dade County in Florida has approximately 45 percent of students learning in person, at last check. Houston’s school district is similar, with about 40 percent in person.

Since Sept. 8, 1,115 total coronavirus cases involving students and staff were recorded in Houston’s district. In Miami Dade, they have had a total of 2,755 positive cases since October.

In Miami Dade, that amounts to roughly 1.5 percent of the teachers and students back at school.

Full details of the CPS reopening plan can be found here.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said he expects the district to threaten teachers with suspensions and even dismissals if they don’t return to school, but he said that’s a risk some are willing to take at this point.

Also From CBS Chicago:

Megan Hickey