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Chicago Public Schools fighting city COVID-19 orders

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With rates of COVID-19 at an all-time high, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot has extended the city’s “stay at home” order until Jan. 22. The order “calls on all Chicagoans to follow clear measures to protect their community.” It consists of a list of don’ts, ranging from indoor dining to non-essential businesses being open past 11 ‘o clock PM.

Despite these restrictions, Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy pre-k teacher Sol Camano was instructed to return to school on Jan. 4. Camano’s students had all opted for remote learning. Concerned about what she felt were unsafe working conditions, Camano decided to work from home the same way she has since the stay-at-home order was first put into place. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) gave her a series of warnings. She continued to work from home despite not receiving pay since Jan. 4.

On Jan. 12, Camano, along with all other teachers who had opted to work from home, found herself locked out of her CPS Google Suite account, cutting her off from programs necessary to do her job. Unable to log in, she and these other teachers were effectively denied the ability to provide instruction and no substitutes were called in to take their places.

Camano, one of 147 teachers who were labeled “absent without leave,” said to The Wittenberg Torch, “They’re taking education from the students.” 

That night, Camano joined a group of teachers for a press conference in front of the home of Board of Education president Miguel del Valle, who they felt was not doing enough to fight for teachers. They told stories outlining their frustration, not just at the lockout, but at the way in which the entire pandemic has been handled by CPS. 

Sol Camano, a preschool teacher in Chicago’s public school system, was instructed to return to work on Jan. 4, amidst a worsening COVID-19 outbreak. Photo courtesy Sol Camano.

Special-needs teacher Brian Yuhas pointed out that CDC guidelines were not being followed in CPS.

Yuhas said that the parents of his students, “know it’s not safe to go back in our rooms. They know that instead of having hand sanitizer and soap and water and proper social distancing—they know that they don’t have that. What they do have are cockroaches and windows that don’t open and rooms that are at 62 degrees.” Yuhas, like Camano, only had students who were learning remotely.

Yuhas’ students are the most affected by the absence of a teacher. He expressed frustration that students who relied on him for direction were denied a day of Zoom school that he otherwise could have provided.

“CPS should have made sure and administration should have made sure there was a substitute in the room,” Yuhas said.

In early December, the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) issued a list of demands for reopening schools.

The preamble to their list reads: “The CTU is putting forward a safe reopening plan that undercuts CPS’ ability to lie about us being the people who are hurting education.”

CEO of CPS Janice Jackson dismissed the list of demands.

“There is no reason for teachers to teach anywhere except in the classroom or the other places that have been identified by the district,” Jackson said.

At a press conference on Monday, Jackson also claimed that teachers who would be locked out of their accounts, “have had several conversations and warnings and reminders and opportunities to explain why they aren’t at work.” While teachers did receive warnings, Camano took issue with the idea that she had an opportunity to “explain.” She said to The Wittenberg Torch she was given a form to fill out and The Wittenberg Torch inquired if she had received a response she answered with a flat, “No.” She now plans on filing a grievance with the Department of Labor.

Maria Xoy, a teacher’s assistant who spoke at the Tuesday-night press conference, also took issue with Jackson’s use of the word “explain.” Xoy is a caregiver to her 85-year-old grandmother, who is on chemotherapy.

Xoy said, “Although I’ve requested accommodations three times, I have received no answer. My answer is that I refuse to walk into an unsafe building.”

Many teachers have expressed that they feel the move by CPS was more about pressuring CTU than providing the best care for kids. While they are willing to work from home, CPS has denied them this. 

We reached out to CPS chief of communications, Michael Passman, for a comment on the recent lock-out and have yet to receive a response.

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