Pressure mounts on Chicago Board of Education to rethink its school reopening plan for fall and its police contract

Outside the Chicago Board of Education’s Loop office Wednesday, teachers taped poster boards to the backs of chairs to represent what they worry classrooms could look like if schools open in the fall.

One imaginary student had a coronavirus infection in the spring. Another didn’t have health insurance. A classmate was an asymptomatic carrier who had passed the temperature check.

“We’ve got a student here who lost a family member to COVID,” narrated Gustav Roman, an English teacher at Kelly College Prep. “… We’ve got … a student in a temporary living situation, who we’re supposed to be supporting.”

The mock school, shared in a livestreamed panel on the Chicago Teachers Union Facebook page, was one of several actions designed to draw attention to two central issues as the Board’s convened its monthly meeting Wednesday: Schools reopening in the fall, and police on campus.

Though votes were not scheduled on either matter, many people saw the meeting as a chance to make their voices heard by decision makers.

Last week, Chicago Public Schools released a much-anticipated draft plan for fall instruction — a hybrid learning model that would bring most students back for two consecutive days of in-person learning on a rotating basis, pending public health guidance.

CPS has created a survey and scheduled five virtual meetings next week seeking community feedback before finalizing a plan. CEO Janice Jackson on Wednesday stressed the importance of community feedback over the next 10 days. The district aims to release another plan in early August.

“We need all of our stakeholders to help us decide how we safely re-enter schools in the fall,” she said. “… It’s important for people to know that the plan we are putting in place is just that. Our goal is to ensure that we can cautiously reopen schools, and we will only do that if it is a safe and responsible thing to do.”

She said the current plan includes needed flexibility and full-time at-home learning options for families who believe that’s the best choice for them.

But teachers who spoke during events hosted by the CTU said in addition to the concerns about the possible spread of COVID-19 within schools, they risked endangering their own families.

“Reopening school is not the safest option,” said Yvette McCaskill, who teaches at Morrill Math and Science Elementary. She appeared in a video from a car caravan organized by the teachers union.

Marilyn Piggee, a first-grade teacher assistant at Murray Language Academy, said paraprofessionals like herself are the “first responders” within schools, yet may are over the age of 50 and at a higher risk for complications if they get the coronavirus.

“We are the first to get to work and the last to leave work. We interact with all the students,” she said. With school starting just after Labor Day, she said staff also have concerns about children returning from family vacations having not quarantined for 14 days.

“How would we know where coworkers or students have been?” she asked. “… If nobody can have more than six people in their house … or bar, how can we have 16 in a classroom?”

During a morning press conference, CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates brought up the challenges faced by immunocompromised students and teachers. “How can you say with a straight face that this plan works for them? It doesn’t work for them.”

Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade also address another issue related to fall plans, those for high school sports.

In prepared remarks, she said that while summer sports programming is underway with COVID-19 restrictions, district leaders have not yet made a decision about prep sports in the fall.

“While we haven’t made a decision about high school sports in the fall, we know athletics are important to many of our students and we are committed to supporting their talents.”

Separately, the Board of Education also needs to vote next month on a new contract with the Chicago Police Department for school-based officers. In June, members voted 4-3 not to end its current contract.

During the CTU panel, Darla Wynn, an elementary teacher at Casals School of Excellence, said she’s working on the push for police-free schools because is paying the $33 million contract with Chicago police while other needs go unmet, such as full-time nurses at all schools.

“That sends a very powerful message,” she said. “We live in Chicago. There are police everywhere. When we need police, we can call them, but they do not need to be hovering over our kids.”

As the meeting began with the board honoring Golden Apple award winners, some recipients used their platform to draw attention to issues facing the city.

Jenine Wehbeh, a Murphy Elementary teacher who was honored for excellence in teaching, recognized “the Chicago students who are leading our community and demanding justice,” particularly Miracle Boyd, a 2020 graduate and member of GoodKids MadCity who had teeth knocked out by Chicago police officers at a weekend protest “for standing up for what she believes in.” Wehbeh said as educator, it’s unacceptable to her that CPS is sending $33 million to CPD, uplifting “white supremacy rather than black and brown youth.”

After recent virtual meetings, Wednesday’s was a hybrid, with two members calling in and five in the board room, including board President Miguel del Valle and Vice President Sendhil Revuluri, along with Jackson, McDade and minimal board staff. All present sat with extra spacing and wore masks, with Revuluri’s showing support for Black Lives Matter.

Del Valle noted this is the first meeting since Illinois moved into Phase Four of its reopening plan, and CPS will announce at a later date if the August meeting will be in person or virtual. Citing technological limitations, he said public comment Wednesday remained capped at 15, but CPS is “planning to adopt systems” to increase number of public participants for future meetings with the intention of one day getting back to the customary 60.

The Board meeting is underway. Check back for updates.

hleone@chicagotribune.com

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