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‘These bruises won’t heal’

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CPS kids back in school, but bitterness remains

By Tim Hadac

Teachers who walked off the job in the new year returned last week after the Chicago Teachers Union rank and file voted to accept Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s offer of increased safety measures at schools.

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Before a settlement was announced last week, a number of parents of children who attend Byrne School placed signs at the school’s perimeter, urging teachers to get back in the classroom. –Supplied photo

But it was a divided vote, with just 55.5% in favor, out of 18,620 votes cast—meaning there was a considerable amount of grumbling on the part of teachers returning to public schools in Clearing and Garfield Ridge, as well as across the city.

“This has been a bitter, bruising experience,” said a woman who teaches at a school in the area and who requested that her name be withheld. “The mayor and her team acted disgracefully toward us and did all they could to make us out to be the villains, when all we do, we do for the children. These bruises won’t heal. The bitterness remains.”

The agreement hammered out between CPS and the CTU calls for expanding COVID-19 testing and giving school communities increased control over both. Educators also now have a metric for reverting to remote learning, as well as incentives for increased substitute teachers to address staffing concerns.

The agreement also provides both students and staff with N95 masks, which are recommended as a standard of protection against the highly infectious COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Even before the vote was finalized, school communities had already begun to organize around tracking and protecting against COVID-19 infection in their schools, with a growing number of schools poised to go on pause because of infection rates among staff and students.

“This vote is a clear show of dissatisfaction with the boss,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement to his members. “It’s outrageous that teachers, school nurses, counselors and more had to endure a week of being locked out by the mayor just to get a commitment from her bargaining team to provide every student with an N95 mask in a pandemic.

“This agreement covers only a portion of the safety guarantees that every one of our school communities deserve,” he continued. “Put bluntly, we have a boss who does not know how to negotiate, does not know how to hear real concerns and is not willing to respect our rank and file enough to listen to us when we tell her we need more protection.”

Sharkey said the vote to return to classrooms “represents a union’s, and a city’s, frustration with a mayor that has simmered since the beginning of this pandemic. We’ve been fortunate that Governor Pritzker has led responsibly, including an offer of hundreds of thousands of SHIELD tests to the district, that the mayor rejected for weeks. But you deserve more, and the families you serve deserve more, and we will continue fighting for that.”

The mayor and her CPS team said little, except to reiterate their assertion that while the latest data shows the Omicron variant surging among young people, hospitalizations among the young are infrequent. Most kids seem to handle Omicron infection as well as they deal with influenza or the common cold.

Clearing and Garfield Ridge residents had a few thoughts to add.

“Things are bad enough [in CPS] without more learning loss,” said Ali Hussein. “I hear what the union is saying about COVID safety, but they didn’t have to walk off the job like that. Once again, they disrupted the lives of children and families across the city.”

Angie Grasso said her granddaughter “was in tears when she learned she couldn’t return from the break and tell her classmates all about her Christmas adventures. The union broke her heart. That’s all I know.”

Heidi Kormann said she ignored the back to school order and kept her son out of school until Tuesday, Jan. 18—as did several thousand parents participating in the CPS Sick-Out coalition.

“I give our teachers and the union all the credit in the world,” she said. “It took a lot of guts to stand up against the mayor, to stand up for what’s right. As always, they care for our children more than anyone at City Hall does.”

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