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Why Should Chicago School Teachers Be Responsible for Making Life Normal Again?

Frontline workers, including teachers, are just supposed to carry on in spite of the government’s failure to manage the pandemic.

teachers with laptops in an empty Chicago classroom
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Elementary school teachers in Chicago prepare to teach remotely during the fall of 2020.

This week, like 25,000 other members of the Chicago Teachers Union, Dennis Kosuth opened his computer and found that he had been locked out of the software he uses to work from home. For the last six years, Kosuth has been a certified nurse with the Chicago public school system, focused on working with students who require special education and have specific health concerns like diabetes. He’s qualified to teach and develop education programming, but due to staffing shortages, he has recently spent more time assisting students with gastric tubes or catheterizations in the three schools in which he works. As both a nurse and an educator, he has an expansive perspective on the current conflict between the teachers’ union, the school district, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The positivity rate in the city is so high, Kosuth said, “if you’re in an elevator with four other people, one of you probably has Covid.” And he fears keeping schools open will add “strain to an already strained system.” When he talks to E.R. nurses from “the old days,” when he worked in hospitals, they tell him they’ve never seen so many nurses out sick or so many kids desperately ill.

Early this week, Kosuth voted along with 73 percent of the union to work remotely without the district’s consent. He wasn’t confident in the measures that have been put in place to keep district employees and students safe; he has his own kid in the eighth grade, he says, and signed up for Covid testing through the school early this year, but his child was never tested. What’s more, it was recently reported that 24,843 of the 35,590 samples that did make it to the lab were ruled “invalid,” basically rendering that safety measure moot.

But in a rather counterintuitive move for city officials, who insist their first priority is to keep kids learning, Chicago Public Schools canceled all classes and locked teachers out of their email and work software. Unable to access the reports he had compiled for the parents of children with medical conditions, Kosuth held meetings in which he relied on his memory as best he could. Classes were canceled by the district on January 6, and the public school district is considering taking legal action against the union. “We cannot allow them to blow up the school system because they decide they want to engage in disruptive, chaotic conduct,” Lightfoot, who has a long history of defying the city’s labor organizations, recently said.

Nearly a year since the first Covid-19 vaccines were available in the United States, schools are stuck in a familiar loop, as city officials urge teachers to return to in-person work and teachers’ unions insist districts haven’t provided reasonable infrastructure to make their jobs safe. In San Francisco this week, some teachers planned a “sick-out,” an action made somewhat less impactful considering more than one in 10 district teachers were already staying home because they were legitimately ill. In New York, some teachers’ unions are asking to teach remotely, a request the city’s new mayor, Eric Adams, has staunchly opposed despite the fact that as many as one-third of students just aren’t showing up for class. The conflict in Chicago is nearly identical to one that almost prompted a strike this time last year—an action that was only avoided when the city promised remote learning flexibility during Covid-19 spikes and regular testing for students and staff, both reasonable practices that have been complicated by testing shortages and the broader assumption that the availability of vaccines would make most Covid-19 concerns obsolete. And in any case, the agreement that provided for these measures expired before kids went back to school last year.

The vitriol aimed at teachers is also eerily familiar as the country enters the pandemic’s third year and union concerns about safety are described as a ploy to hold children “hostage” or framed as selfish by liberal and conservative commenters alike. (I’d argue the decision to shut school down entirely when teachers vote to go remote is a particularly petty and impactful version of this complaint.) Recently, The New York Times interviewed a parent who couldn’t find childcare for her Chicago-area kid. “I understand they want to be safe, but I have to work,” she said. “I don’t understand why they are so special.” Teachers are protected by vaccines, the logic goes, and are thinking only of themselves, not about parents or the damage done to children when they can’t attend school.

School staff like Kosuth, who are as focused on students’ essential well-being as their education, do highlight just how much cities rely on the public education system to provide basic social services. The responsibility to care for vulnerable populations through these programs shouldn’t be overlooked. But notably, despite a general anxiety reflected in the media that teachers are trying to bring back remote learning for the foreseeable future, most unions are only asking for a few weeks to let case counts go down. In Chicago, specifically, teachers are suggesting a return to school sometime around January 18.

The recurrent conflict over school closures gets at something deeper: Who is considered responsible for returning the country to some semblance of normalcy? The federal government has foisted that mandate onto certain sectors of the public as it pivots to treating Covid-19 as more of an economic liability than a crisis of public health. Through the week, following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that cut isolation times in half out of concern the country might be forced to shut down, the White House has repeatedly insisted that K-12 students should remain in schools and indicated that spikes in Covid cases are just a routine fact of life. Everyone, including teachers, is just supposed to carry on, in spite of the government’s failings.

In the case of the Chicago Teachers Union, workers are being asked to return to the classroom when the testing measures they were relying on completely fell flat. To take another example, nurses are being pulled back into harrowing long shifts, but they’re no longer protected by Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules that required protective equipment and incentivized hospitals to provide basic safety measures for their staff. Facing the third year of the pandemic, the emergency protections that were granted to workers who keep the country together have expired or are no longer politically feasible. But those same workers are being told the emergency requires that they show up regardless.