Chicago Teachers Punished for Refusing to Show up for In-Person classes over COVID-19 Concerns

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Teachers lead virtual classes outside Suder Montessori Magnet Elementary School in Chicago on Jan. 11 to protest the district’s reopening plans. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun-Times/AP).

Many Chicago teachers were punished for refusing to show up for the start of in-person classes over COVID-19 concerns, and protested on Wednesday, outside the school board president’s home.

Roughly 150 employees were docked pay and locked out of Chicago Public Schools systems earlier this week, meaning they can’t teach remotely either, as classes began for thousands of pre-kindergarten and special education students. District officials said late Wednesday that the number had dropped to 100 as staff members either returned to work or presented a valid excuse, such as needing to quarantine.

“I don’t believe it’s safe to reopen the schools. I don’t believe it’s safe for my family, I live with an elderly mom… I don’t believe it is safe for the city’s children or their families,” said Kirstin Roberts, a pre-kindergarten teacher on the city’s northwest side.

She was among dozens who bundled up in winter gear for a “teach in” outside Chicago Board of Education President Miguel del Valle’s home. Those who’ve lost access to school email and teaching platforms recorded videos or Facebook Live streams for their students. Others protested in solidarity and continued remote lessons from the lawn.

Roberts said none of the 22 kids in her class returned for in-person instruction and her two co-teachers and a substitute were teaching in her absence.

With strong objections from the Chicago Teachers Union, the nation’s third-largest district has experienced a bumpy start to its gradual return to in-person instruction after going digital last March.

Pre-kindergarten and some special education students were given the option to come back to class this week or continue online. About 6,000 students expressed interest in returning, but district officials haven’t released updated attendance data.

Students in kindergarten through 8th grade have the option for two days of in-person instruction starting Feb. 1. Plans haven’t been announced for high school students. Overall, roughly 40%, about 77,000, of eligible students have said they’d like to return.

The union argues that the roughly 355,000-student district hasn’t gone far enough to protect teachers and seeks better metrics to determine reopening, widespread vaccinations, and better classroom ventilation.

District officials said schools have been cleaned, thousands of air purifiers placed in classrooms, and anyone entering a school must first complete an online health screening, including a self-reported temperature check. Chicago schools have also rolled out a voluntary testing program, where teachers get COVID-19 tests roughly once a month at school to monitor potential outbreaks.

District officials released data late Wednesday showing about 73% of the expected 1,708 teachers reported for duty, which has slightly increased from earlier in the week. Among all school employees, the rate was higher at roughly 78%.

Nearly 200 employees failed the health screening Wednesday. District officials said 100 employees, most of them teachers, still had not shown up to work or provided a valid excuse.

According to the state’s Department of Public Health, Illinois logged 5,862 new confirmed and probable infections as well as 97 additional deaths on Wednesday. Overall, Illinois has reported more than 1 million cases and 17,840 deaths.

About half of American students are still learning virtually. Teachers are uncertain about when they will be vaccinated, and their unions are fighting efforts to return their members to crowded hallways.