Chicago Teachers Union wants a virtual start to fall classes

Chicago Public Schools should start the fall semester with virtual classes rather than calling students back to buildings left empty since March, the union representing thousands of teachers in the nation’s third-largest school district said Thursday.

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases continues to rise in dozens of states, there is no way to ensure the safety of students and teachers in schools this fall, leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union said. The union also wants charter schools to start the year virtually.

Ariam Abraham, a high school English teacher at Simeon Career Academy on the city’s South Side, said she worries about older coworkers who have spent the spring and summer staying home as much as possible, trying to avoid the virus. Her classroom windows don’t open and some rooms don’t have windows to encourage air flow, Abraham said.

“I love my job, I love my students and if it were up to me, I’d return in the fall,” she said. “But it’s not up to me. It’s up to the virus right now and we know that it’s unsafe.”

Conversations about whether to resume in-person classes this fall are roiling communities across the country. President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have publicly pressured school officials to do so but officials in Los Angeles and San Diego, the two largest districts in California, said this week that their year will begin with online classes only.

“The reason why we’ve survived in Chicago and Illinois is because no one listened to Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos,” Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said during a video press conference on Thursday. “It just seems clear to me that if you want to live, if you want to be healthy, that anything that those two tell us to do, we do the opposite.”

Other districts, including New York City, plan to combine some in-person attendance with online work.

Chicago Public Schools officials plan to release a “preliminary framework” this week and get feedback on that plan from students, parents and staff. But a final decision will come closer to the start of the school year, which is scheduled for early September.

“The health and safety of our students and staff is paramount, and our planning for the fall will be guided by the best available data and guidance from state and local health officials,” Chicago Public Schools spokesman Michael Passman said in a statement. “We know that families and staff are eager to learn more about the coming school year, and we appreciate that there are a range of needs and views that are valid and must be considered.”

The union’s announcement follows a school year marked by an 11-day teachers’ strike in October that exacerbated an already testy relationship with Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

The district shifted to online learning in mid-March when Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered all schools to stop in-person instruction as part of the state’s plan to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Union officials said a firm decision soon to begin fall classes virtually will give teachers more time to prepare for that style of instruction.

Also on Thursday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker took the unusual step of preemptively filing a lawsuit to ensure school children wear face coverings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus when, and if, schools reopen in a few weeks.