CHICAGO (CBS) — Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools leaders said the district remains committed to reopening some schools on Monday, and warned that teachers and staff who are required to be in school but aren’t will be considered AWOL and not eligible for pay.

On Monday, CPS will begin bringing back pre-kindergarten and some special education students to classrooms. CPS Chief Executive Officer Janice Jackson said approximately 65% of teachers and support staff who were required to return to schools this week to prepare for school reopenings did so, and she expects that number to grow by Monday.

“I remain optimistic and confident that our teachers are going to return to work on Monday,” she said.

Jackson said any teachers and staff who defy the district’s requirement to be in schools on Monday will lose out on paychecks.

“Throughout the week, we have sent clear messages to those who have chosen not to attend work,” Jackson said. “Those individuals will be deemed absent without leave, and they will not be eligible for pay going forward. This is not a measure that we take lightly, and it can be avoided if staff chooses to return to school. We believe we’ve done every single thing within our power to ensure a safe return to school.”

Some teachers pushed back on Jackson’s threat to halt pay for staff who don’t show up as expected on Monday, accusing the district of bullying teachers.

“That tells me the CEO does not care about my health and safety, does not care about the health and safety of my students, but is making me decide between getting paid and supporting my family, or life and death of myself and my family. It seems like a pretty heartless comment during a worldwide pandemic,” said Lilly Freyer, a 3rd grade teacher at LaSalle Elementary Language Academy.

“Yesterday was the deadliest day of the pandemic to date. Over 4,000 Americans died yesterday. That’s insane numbers compared to where we were in March, but we’re thinking that it will be better somehow, and we’re safe to go back in?” Freyer added.  “There aren’t answers for a lot of these things. It doesn’t make sense.”

Shavon Coleman, a preschool teacher at Lawndale Community Academy, said denying pay to teachers who aren’t willing to risk going back to classrooms during a pandemic “really sucks.”

Coleman also slammed the district for reopening schools despite its own survey of parents, which found more than 60% of parents planned to send their children back to classrooms.

“The fact that they sent out these surveys, but they’re not listening to them, that’s the part that does it for me. Why send out a survey to check the temperature of what’s going on, especially when you already know?” Coleman said. “You do these surveys, you sent them to us, but you don’t listen to the people at all. So I feel bullied, I absolutely do, because you act like you’re giving me an option when you send me a survey with choices, but then you tell me that I don’t have an option.”

Freyer also questioned the decision to have K-8 students return to classes on Feb. 1, when there will be only one week left in the first semester.

“CPS hasn’t put a lot of logical though tin this if they’re having my students come back in the classroom four days before the semester is over,” she said. “We’re destroying the routines, the procedures that we have going in remote learning with a week to go in the semester.”

Jackson and Lightfoot have defended plans to begin reopening schools on Monday, despite objections from the Chicago Teachers Union which has called the CPS reopening plan insufficient to protect the health and safety of teachers and students, and has suggested delaying in-person classes until all staff have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

CTU has proposed reopening schools only if the city’s average positivity rate is below 3%, and the city is reporting fewer than 400 new cases per day. However, CPS and Chicago Department of Public Health officials have said positivity rate is not the best metric to use for decisions on reopening, and the district has said they will only halt plans to reopen schools if cases in the city are doubling fewer than every 18 days. As of Thursday, cases in Chicago are doubling every 82 days, according to CDPH.

Ian Smithdahl, who said he has two children in CPS schools, said if his kids’ teachers are worried about going back to school buildings, so is he.

“When the teachers say that’s not a good environment for the students to learn, I have to weigh that very heavily,” he said.

CPS students have been learning remotely since March, and Lightfoot said remote learning “is not sustainable, not over the long term.”

“It does not serve every student equally, especially those students who are younger, who require additional help and support and simply don’t have access to a sustainable learning environment,” she said.

Jackson noted that many parents, especially in lower-income Black and Brown communities, can’t stay home throughout the day to help with remote learning.

“For that reason, we must reopen our doors and give them an option,” she said.

Jackson said the parents of approximately 6,000 children, or about 35% of those eligible to return on Monday, opted to return to in-person classes. She said another 70,000 children are expected to return to classrooms when students in kindergarten through 8th grade begin in-person classes in February.

 

Lightfoot said she understands the concerns parents might have about sending their children back to classrooms while the pandemic is still ongoing, which is why they have the option to keep their children at home to learn remotely.

“What this boils down to is giving families the option of making the decision for themselves,” she said. “To deny parents this option is irresponsible and wrong. It just is. I understand the stress we’ve all felt during this pandemic, but we cannot lose sight of our ultimate goal, which is to keep our children safe, and nurtured, and engaged, and give parents and families a pathway to do just that if they choose to by sending their children to school.”

Lightfoot said CPS will be providing masks and other PPE for all students and staff, and is providing HEPA air purifiers for every classroom and office that will be used when schools reopen. The mayor said the district also studied the spread of COVID-19 in Catholic schools, private schools, and charter schools that already have reopened.

“We have learned from their experience, and we have applied that learning to what we’re doing in our buildings to make sure that when our students come back, that these buildings are safe,” Lightfoot said.

Jackson said CPS has worked closely with the Chicago Department of Public Health to establish a comprehensive reopening plan to make sure schools are safe.

“Our plan not only meets those expectations, but in many cases exceeds the guidance that we’ve received from the CDC, as well as our local and state health departments,” she said.

However, CTU leadership has told members they could call for a strike vote as early as mid-January if CPS does not change its return-to-buildings policy.

Lightfoot and Jackson said they are committed to working collaboratively with the teachers union, pointing to 51 formal meetings between the district and CTU leadership since June. But Jackson accused the union of “moving the goalposts” in its reopening demands, including demanding rent abatement and other issues not related to safely reopening schools as part of a deal.

Jackson also said some of CTU’s demands “simply defy the best available guidance from public health experts.”

“We will continue to meet regularly with them, but we will only make progress if all parties come to the table focused on the only goal we should have, which is how do we see students return to school in as safe a manner as possible,” she said.

Lightfoot declined to say if teachers and staff who don’t show up as required on Monday could be fired.

“Let’s not race to the bottom,” she said. “What we want is a substantive collaborative relation and resolution of this issue. Obviously, we expect teachers to fulfill their responsibilities.”

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