CHICAGO (CBS)–Thousands of Chicago Public Schools students returned to the classroom for the first time in months on Monday, as in-person classes resumed for preschool and some special education programs.

However, it’s unclear how many teachers and staff the district has required to return to classrooms will actually be back at schools on Monday, as the Chicago Teachers Union has said the CPS reopening plan is not safe, and the union will defend teachers who refuse to enter classrooms yet.

The union held various demonstrations across the city to oppose the district’s reopening plans. Teachers have said “this plan is dangerous.”

Several elementary school teachers camped out in the cold at Suder Montessori Magnet Elementary School, teaching their students remotely in solidarity with preschool teachers who have required to return to their classrooms.

It’s an emotional day for them. Some said they feel they’re having to choose between their jobs and their lives.

“I don’t know what’s the right thing to do. I don’t know how I can balance myself to serve my students, and also be there for my children, and keep them safe, and keep myself safe,” said Suder pre-k and kindergarten teacher Celine Guerrero.

Guerrero said she’s afraid of going back in the classroom, and above that she’s afraid she might bring COVID-19 back home to her own children.

It’s an argument CTU has been making for weeks.

At a press conference Monday morning, some teachers said they’d rather wait until a vaccine is widely available before going back to the classroom.

Meantime, at Whittier Elementary School in Pilsen, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said no students and just one teacher showed up for in-person learning on Monday.

Whittier is made up of roughly 90% low-income students, and 97% of the students are Hispanic. It’s no secret that Black and Brown communities have been hit harder by COVID.

Some teachers, parents, and activists have said CPS should keep classes virtual until the pandemic is over

“Restaurants, everything is closed. How? it makes no sense that our schools are being pushed to be open,” Orozco Community Academy local school council representative Teresa Contreras said.

Activist Javier Ruiz said it doesn’t make sense to bring students back to classrooms at the same time the mayor has extended the city’s stay-at-home advisory through Jan. 22.

“Kids and parents should not be a science experiment,” Ruiz said.

However, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady noted that schools were exempt from the city’s stay-at-home advisory

The advisory urges people to stay at home as much as possible, except for essential activities like work, school, grocery shopping, or medical care.

Lightfoot and CPS Chief Executive Officer Dr. Janice Jackson toured some classrooms as the day began.

Jackson said the district has been preparing for this day since last summer. She said the district has installed air purifiers in every classroom and office that will be occupied when schools reopen, and have purchased ample amounts of masks, cleaning and disinfecting supplies, and other personal protective equipment.

Jackson said CPS also has studied other districts that have previously resumed in-person learning to help guide its reopening plan.

“We’ve gone above and beyond the requirements from CDC and CDPH in order to ensure that our students and staff are safe,” Jackson said. “We are reopening our schools because we believe it is safe to do so. We know that parents do have questions and concerns. We encourage you to reach out directly to your schools. You’re going to get the best information from the principals and the teachers at your local schools.”

Parents can also call the CPS hotline with questions about the reopening plan at 773-553-KIDS.

CPS also has added a voluntary COVID-19 testing program for school-based staff.

“This program launched last week, and will help the district monitor the prevalence of COVID-19 among asymptomatic staff in our schools. Employees who participate in the program will be tested monthly at their schools,” Jackson said. “We will be administering rapid tests, and those findings will be available in as little as 15 minutes.”

Jackson said any teacher who gets a positive result from a rapid COVID-19 test will then be offered a PCR test the same day. Data from those tests will be made available at cps.edu/reopening

Lightfoot has repeatedly defended plans to resume in-person classes, arguing too many students have been falling behind during remote learning.

“We’ve learned over these many months that the fact of the matter is remote learning, while It works just fine for some, it absolutely has not served all of our students equally or well,” she said. “The best learning for our youngest learners involves social and emotional interactions with their teachers, with their students, with their staff in an environment of support and nurturing in-person.”

However, Lightfoot said she understands some parents’ concerns about sending kids back to classrooms. She said that’s why returning to in-person classes is optional for all CPS students.

“I want to assure you that we have and we will continue to take every step possible to address those concerns in a way that is consistent with the public health guidance,” she said.

“We need you to continue our journey, our necessity, our obligation and responsibility to make sure that our kids get a safe and nurturing academic environment, and that they are learning and growing as young people, as human beings,” she added. “The only issue on the table has to be what’s in the best interests of our young people, our students.”

Jackson said only a small group of teachers are resisting returning to work, and the plan is that all grades and teachers will return to in-person learning in the next couple of months. Elementary students are scheduled to return to classes on Feb. 1. A return date has not yet been set for high school students.

Jackson said the district has contingency plans in place for instances where teachers don’t return to classrooms.

The district has said teachers who have been told they must return to classrooms but do not show up will be considered absent without leave, and will be ineligible for pay.

Jackson said any teachers who will be denied pay or access to the dsitrict’s Google remote teaching tools “have had several conversations and warnings and reminders and opportunities to explain why they aren’t at work last week.”

“We are not forcing anyone to do anything except honor the contract the teachers fought hard for. They took a strike for the contract that we are asking them to honor, and what that says is that they must educate our students where we ask them to do that, and we are moving towards in-person instruction starting with the group that we started with today,” Jackson said.

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