As COVID Surges, Teachers in Chicago Are Up Against a Wall of Neoliberal Cruelty

The struggle between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot over how the city’s public schools should be operating in the face of the current COVID-19 spike has been a case study in neoliberal governance.

One in four COVID tests taken in Chicago are currently coming back positiveThe majority of potential exposure locations in Illinois are schools,According to the Illinois Department of Health as well as to Allison Arwady (the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health who was appointed by Lightfoot herself).

The majority of Chicago Teachers Union members voted for the union to take action to address the spike in school-based COVID-19 transmission. They will switch from in-person to distant teaching until a list with safety requirements has been fulfilled. The union’s demands included KN95 masks for teachers and students, and mandatory testing for students and staff before returning to the buildings on January 18. After reviewing the hard data regarding COVID in Illinois schools, and taking into account the lack of equipment in classrooms to reduce COVID transmission, union members voted in support of the action. As a result, we started using the school district’s online platforms to connect with our students, just as we did in March 2020.

Last night, on January 10, members of the Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates voted to suspend the remote-learning action, and the union’s rank-and-file members will take a vote this week on the current agreement with the Board of Education regarding a return to in-person learning after a week of working remotely from home.

The union delegates voted for the suspension of remote-learning action, and a vote by rank-and file on the next steps following the city. reportedly made concessions in relation to the teachers’ demand for expanded testing, metrics for when schools need to go remote based on student absences or staff issues, funding for PPE and contact tracing protocols.

Throughout this process, the mainstream media and political elites in Chicago have responded to teachers’ concerns by claiming that the actions of Chicago’s school workers are flippant and greedy. However, Lori Lightfoot as Mayor and her Board of Education are preventing students from accessing safe education at a time COVID cases are rising and schools have been identified as major vectors of transmission.

The statistics on COVID-19 exposure at Illinois schools are not propaganda. They are real data that should lead to immediate action to keep Chicago’s students and their families safe from the current surge in COVID-19 cases.

Instead of working with teachers and staff to mitigate the threat of COVID the Chicago Board of Education was appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot. It locked students out of their online platforms, forcing schools essentially to close while Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union negotiated the current proposed agreement to allow for in-person learning.

Suburban districts, those with elected school boards, have taken action and made the move to online learning during this crisis.

It is not a strike. Chicago Teachers Union has been asking CPS to provide the online tools to allow them to hold classes virtually until they take action to protect our students’ safety or until the current spike in cases subsides.

Staffing shortages are a major consequence of the surge. The Chicago Teachers Union is pressing the district for more staff to ensure safety and compliance with COVID guidelines.

However, throughout this struggle Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her hand-picked Board of Education have once again shown that they’re not willing to negotiate for what’s best for students and staff. Lightfoot’s short term as mayor saw her force the longest teachers strike in over 20 years due to her refusal to fully staff schools with counselors, social workers, and nurses.

This current struggle did start with the Omicron rise. It started when Mayor Lightfoot assumed control of the third largest city in America and the third largest school district. In 1995, the Illinois General Assembly put its full trust in the mayor of Chicago to appoint the Board of Education and have total purview over the schools, power that suburban and rural mayors don’t have. The Republican takeover of the state capital was when the Illinois GOP, now energized, saw potential in Democratic Mayor Richard Daley’s ability to cut crucial spending, break up the union and privatize large swathes of the district. He appointed Paul Vallas, a municipal hatchet-man who was not a licensed superintendent, to be the new “CEO” of schools. This allowed Daley to hatch his plan “Renaissance 2010,” a program that would push the union out of the majority of Chicago’s schools with the full support of the business and finance communities in Chicago and across the nation. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who was involved in the 2019 contract negotiations for the Chicago Teachers Union, has demonstrated that she supports cutting student services, much like Daley.

Lightfoot, like Rahm Emanuel before her, fought tooth and nail to keep this power. Communities made it clear that they wanted a local school board that was elected and accountable for their needs. This is more like the suburban districts which are now using remote learning to protect their teachers and students.

There is hope, thanks to a law that will be implemented. effect in 2024 that will phase in an elected school board for Chicago. But, how many students and staff will COVID be exposed in the next two-years?

Teachers, school paraprofessionals, clinicians, and school administrators have created a list to ensure that in-person learning is safe. If there is a leadership vacuum at city hall, workers will take over leadership. This is exactly what has happened in Chicago. The Chicago Teachers Union’s action was a case of workers taking action for their own safety and the safety of Chicago’s children and their families.

Mayor Lightfoot could have decided not to lock out teachers, keeping students from daily instruction, but instead to trust in the wisdom and judgment of teachers and staff who make daily decisions to protect themselves and their students.

Mayor Lightfoot does not have the qualifications to be an educator or a leader. She’s a corporate lawyer who wants to win her will at any cost. Either she doesn’t look at the data, or she defies it in her pursuit of forcing her charges back to the schools — doing as she says. Her Board of Education meets online.

The current struggle is a symptom of the larger problem of neoliberal school reform — a virus whose only vaccine is democracy.