Schools Need More Resources Before They Can Open Safely, Chicago Teacher Says

Due to skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and a lack of safety measures to keep schools open, the Chicago Teachers’ Union voted this week to move to remote learning. In response, Mayor Lori Lightfoot locked teachers out of remote teaching and threatened to put them on “no pay” status. Left VoiceChicago teacher Hala Karim was interviewed about her experience and what schools need to do to protect students and staff.

Left Voice: Where do I work?

Hala KarimI am a Curtis Elementary English Language Arts teacher in the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago’s south side.

Why did your vote for remote classes What has the coronavirus been at your school and in your community?

Remote classes are why I voted. The most important concern is how our COVID data looks. Chicago is experiencing a significant increase in cases. There are more than 11,000 new cases per day within the city limits. Cook County, which is where Chicago is situated, is using trailers to transport patients because ICUs at hospitals are running out of capacity. Data points that would have terrified us a year ago have become completely normalized, thanks to our elected officials’ terrible priorities. They want parents to return to work, no matter what the cost. Teachers must also be present in school to care for their children.

That’s what we have been breathlessly arguing for over 18 months now. The other important concern I want to address is how schools have changed since we returned. To reiterate what we’ve said again, we all think in-person schooling is best, but we have to have resources, adequate staffing, and hygienic facilities. We don’t have these things. This year, school has not been normal. Even before the surge, there was a severe shortage of substitute teachers. There aren’t people to cover classes when a staff member is out, so what my admin has done is split classes. They will take one class and then split the children into different classes. Then they will have the kids follow a different class for the rest of the day. This reduces the number of children in a crowded environment and also makes teachers less useful as babysitters. Every day, I don’t know what I can expect when i walk into my building. While we all try to be flexible, it can get very chaotic.

And, as I said, we don’t have proper mitigations in place. Our community has chosen to only test 0.52% students on a weekly basis. Our students are largely unvaccinated. There’s no social distancing in our school, and our kids eat maskless in class and at lunch together. The fact that less than half of the students wear their masks during the day is a plus. As children become more comfortable living in a pandemic, that number is slowly decreasing. Also, positive test results are now voluntary so I suspect that schools are greatly under-reporting how many COVID cases actually exist. It has been so frustrating and messy. Remote learning is the best way to temporarily learn until these numbers drop drastically or the city decides not to use the billions in relief money that they have to provide us with resources to test our schools and make sure they are safe.

We’ve seen Lori Lightfoot demonizing teachers and the union, as well as locking teachers out of their remote classrooms and threatening to cut pay. What has the backlash been?

I was awake at night the night we democratically elected to go remote. After Jesse Sharkey had announced that we would be remote from our accounts, I signed in to my account at midnight. I saw a post on Facebook half an hour later that said we were about to be locked out of our accounts. I checked, and lo and behold, I couldn’t access any of my work mail or tools. These are people that can’t fix technology issues for days and weeks, but they were quick to penalize teachers for wanting to stay safe. It’s interesting.

We started talking about what we should be doing at my school in our union chat GroupMe. My school has an amazing delegate who was available to give us information in real-time and meet with us via Skype to address our concerns. The union asked us to email our administrator from our personal accounts and inform them that we intended to work remotely. This we did. One by one, we received an email confirming that remote work was not allowed. It turned out to be a boilerplate message that admin had instructed to send to employees. The exact same email was sent to us when we submitted our work documentation.

The district has used scare tactics to divide us in many ways, including lockouts, threatening emails, and media propaganda. But it’s day two, and we have had 88% of our union continue to commit to remote. To ensure that my colleagues also stay remote, I am reaching to them. We are not being paid at the moment, but we will have evidence if we document our work. I understand some members’ frustration and perhaps they are in dire situations in which they really need that full paycheck, but for the vast majority of us, we need to stay strong as a union. We walk out together and go back in together, and that’s how we get our safety demands met. The district is counting on playing us against each other, and we just can’t let them.

What has been the response of students and parents?

To be truthful, I have been careful about reaching out to my school’s parents. I know some members faced discipline (later rescinded) for that last year, and I’m just trying to avoid it. However, I know that the parents of my school are supportive and understanding. Many of them chose not to go to school last year despite being offered hybrid options and the chance to come back in person. But I have seen some pretty nasty comments all over the union’s Instagram page and Facebook page from parents or just random people who think we are lazy and selfish. It’s always the same type of comments. But my comment to them is, if you haven’t been in a classroom this year, I don’t want to hear it.

Students felt something was there right before the vote to go remote. First, 30% of their classmates were absent. Many of their teachers were already suffering from COVID and other illnesses so they didn’t have a normal return to school after break. They were sent home with packets asking me if school was being cancelled. They have felt a lot of emotion from the lack of transparency and consistency for students. They are entitled to better treatment by those in power.

What does a safe reopening school look like to you What is required to keep students, staff, and the community safe

A safe reopening should include an enormous increase in unionized staffing and a shift from privatized custodians towards custodians representing CTU (our schools simply are filthy), a rise in student vaccinations which could be greatly accelerated by using our school as vaccination sites, as well as a plunge in COVID counts. Again, the city has billions of dollars in COVID relief to do it, but they’re holding the money hostage or using it to pay their debts. They refuse to cooperate with us.

How can teachers and workers support each other right now,

I think a short-term mutual aid fund for teachers might be a great idea. I know our next paychecks are going to suffer a big blow, and we don’t know when or if we will be getting paid. We could also use positive messaging on social media to spread solidarity and offer some support.