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Lori Lightfoot Is Insisting on Forcing Chicago Teachers Into Unsafe Schools

Despite Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s own admission that reopening other parts of the city like restaurants would be unsafe given COVID-19 infection rates, she is insisting Chicago teachers and students return to in-person learning. The Chicago Teachers Union has voted to defy the mayor, refusing to return to schools under current conditions.

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot in Logan Square, 2019. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

In Logan Square, the Chicago northwest side neighborhood where I live, plain white fliers with black, all-caps text have been pasted up on light posts and newspaper boxes. They read, “LORI LIGHTFOOT IS KILLING TEACHERS.”

In normal times, this might sound like slightly overzealous leftist messaging. But in this case, it’s quite literally true. At least two teachers in the city have died of conditions related to COVID-19 after returning to work in their schools, including a thirty-year veteran first-grade teacher.

The city’s bars and restaurants are operating at significantly reduced capacity at the orders of the mayor, who said last week about eating and drinking establishments, “I am optimistic that we will be able to increase capacity soon, but it would be irresponsible and dangerous to rush to reopen further and undo the incredible progress we have made as a city.” Yet she has ordered teachers and staff back to school starting today and refused to agree to basic safety measures proposed by the Chicago Teachers Union.

This is the second time she has attempted to reopen schools. After a strike vote in August, she put the plan on hold. Last week, teachers voted overwhelmingly to continue to work remotely despite the mayor’s order. Yesterday Lightfoot doubled down on her promise to lock teachers out of their email accounts and teaching platforms at the end of today if they did not come to school.

“Those who do not report to work — and I hate to even go there — we’ll have to take action,” Lightfoot said. The mayor is clearly itching for a showdown with the city’s most powerful and most progressive union.

Lightfoot claimed on MSNBC this morning that the city has “a very robust vaccination plan” for teachers. This is a baffling claim: Chicago won’t even open public vaccine sites for teachers for at least another week. While a select few CPS employees have been vaccinated through private physicians or chain providers like Walgreens, most have been unable to access vaccines. A recent report showed that vaccines have disproportionately gone to wealthier and whiter areas of the city.

The district has refused other common sense proposals, like accommodating teachers or household members with high-risk medical conditions by allowing them to continue to work remotely. As high school teacher Kenzo Shibata wrote in Jacobin last week, he was denied a request to teach from home — despite the fact that his wife is immunocompromised with stage four breast cancer. Currently, CPS has only agreed to accept 20 percent of applications for accommodations and will decide which conditions merit accommodations.

The mayor and school district leadership have been intent on reopening in-person schooling, citing the Center for Disease Control and other studies that claim reopening schools is safe under certain conditions. But those studies were mainly conducted in rural or small school districts a fraction of the size of CPS. Suburban school districts, which the mayor has used as an example of successful reopening, have had access to vaccines much earlier than major city districts.

The mayor and school district have also claimed they want to reduce inequality in learning by allowing low-income students of color to go back to school, the kind of claim free-market reform-minded Democrats love to claim is at the heart of their opposition to teachers unions. But 80 percent of CPS students have opted out of returning to in-person learning with their parents, and white students make up a disproportionate number of those choosing to go back to the classroom.

What’s more, the city’s working-class communities of color have long experienced the worst of the district’s neglect, from lack of school nurses, counselors, and librarians, to the most basic facility repairs. CPS is nowhere near equipped to handle a safe return.

Working-class students desperately need the supports provided in in-person schools, but those students and their families — who live where COVID-19 has hit hardest — have made it clear that they do not feel safe returning. Instead of providing adequate support for remote learning, like internet access, so students can return to school when it’s safe, the district’s plan effectively maintains the disparity.

Behind closed doors, the mayor has explained her priorities. At a rally in support of the CTU at Brentano Elementary Math & Science Academy, thirty-fifth ward city council member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa recounted the mayor’s explanation for reopening so soon. “The [city council’s] Latino Caucus met with Mayor Lori Lightfoot some weeks ago… We said, ‘Mayor, why do you want to do this?’ She said, ‘One, I’m hearing from employers that they want their employees back in the workplace; two, I’m hearing from downtown businesses that they don’t have any customers; and three, because I’m worried about the kids.’”

The stakes of this battle couldn’t be higher — not just for Chicago’s teachers and students, but for everyone around the country. A corporate-friendly mayor is trying to defeat a democratic, militant union that has blazed a path for teachers unions around the country to fight not only for themselves, but for their students, parents, and the entire working class. And as more contagious and vaccine-resistant variants of COVID-19 make their way through the general populace, that defeat would mean the premature reopening of schools and opening the floodgates to another wave of outbreaks. That means sickness and deaths, of teachers, staff, students, parents, family members, and many others.

The CTU can’t lose this battle — they’re fighting for all of us.