On March 13, 2020, the Chicago Public Schools schools suspended in-person instruction due to the coronavirus outbreak. Many CPS students, such as myself, were disappointed at the prospect of losing another two weeks of our academic year, which had already been cut short by a 14-day teachers’ strike orchestrated by the Chicago Teachers Union in the fall of 2019. It was disheartening to be confronted with more lost time. Not to worry though! The Governor’s order was set to expire on March 30. It was just “15 days to slow the spread,” and we would be back in the classroom before we knew it.
Needless to say, CPS students never returned to the classroom. “Remote learning” was extended through the end of the 2019 – 2020 academic year, and continued into 2020 – 2021. On February 6, CPS students will mark the grim milestone of the 330th day of “15 days to slow the spread.” They are still unable to resume their education and some semblance of normalcy. At this point, the Chicago Teachers Union is responsible for the closure of the schools.
This week, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered CPS teachers to return to the classroom, but they have refused to comply. The CTU contract – negotiated only last fall – includes a no-strike clause, meaning the teachers are now conducting an illegal strike. The mayor also bears some responsibility for the impasse. Lightfoot began the week by ordering teachers to return to their classrooms, saying they would not be paid and would be locked out of online learning should they refuse. She retreated from this firm stance as a “gesture of good faith,” while blaming the Trump administration for what she previously acknowledged was a “uniquely local” issue.
The CTU insists that the teachers, brave frontline heroes though they are, would be at a wildly disproportionate risk of infection or death should they return to the classroom. To this end, they have demanded to be placed into the city’s 1B vaccination program category, which would see all teachers vaccinated alongside the elderly, infirm, and healthcare workers. As Mayor Lightfoot has pointed out, there are not enough vaccine doses available to make this feasible.
“The vast majority of teachers would not contract Covid, would be very unlikely to develop complications if they did, and should return to the classroom immediately.”
Even so, teachers are not “risking their lives” by returning to the classroom. CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, has said that “vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.” New York City public schools have reopened, and Los Angeles is on track to do the same. The coronavirus is not significantly more deadly in Chicago classrooms. According to data provided by the City of Chicago, 81.2 percent of Covid fatalities were of people aged 60 years or above, with one third being older than 80. The National Center for Education Statistics cites that the average age of a public school teacher in Illinois is 40.8 years; only 16.9 percent are over 55 years old. CDC data from September revealed that only six percent of Covid fatalities in the country had no underlying condition also listed as a cause of death. Most CPS teachers presumably do not have a serious comorbidity. The vast majority of teachers would not contract Covid, would be very unlikely to develop complications if they did, and should return to the classroom immediately. Exceptions might be made for teachers who are elderly or have a serious underlying condition.
The most perverse part of the CTU stance is the notion that teachers are selfless heroes with solely their students’ best interests at heart. The teachers’ refusal to return to the classroom is harming CPS’s 355,000 students, and the longer they are forced out of their classrooms, the more harm they endure. There has been an alarming rise in mental health issues among teenagers in recent months. Most alarming though, an entire generation of children is losing nearly a year of learning, and of their lives, unnecessarily. Remote learning is woefully inadequate. How will CPS students measure up when this ends? Will they be prepared for college and beyond? Still the cries come that teachers value their students physical, mental, emotional and intellectual health above all else. “I would take a bullet for my students,” some teachers insist. That is a truly admirable attitude. If it is true, then they should accept the comparatively negligible risk of Covid – and do their jobs.