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    Chicago teachers may refuse to work in schools starting Wednesday amid COVID-19 surge

    Teachers, parents and members of the Chicago Teachers Union speak outside Park Manor Elementary about parents keeping their CPS students remote until Lightfoot’s CPS team provides testing and safety guarantees, on Jan. 3, 2022. [Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago]

    This article was first published in Block Club Chicago.

    Chicago teachers may refuse to work in-person in schools starting Wednesday over concern about COVID-19 spread in schools.

    The return to school Monday from winter break comes as the city is experiencing a record surge in confirmed cases and after parents grappled with a chaotic student testing program. Some school districts in other major cities, including Detroit, Atlanta and Cleveland, have delayed reopening or opted to start school with remote learning.

    The Chicago Teachers Union’s executive board will meet Monday night, sources said. If there hasn’t been progress on bargaining with the district, the union’s full membership could vote Tuesday night to switch to remote teaching starting Wednesday.

    Several parents received notice that the tests they submitted may not be processed in the required 48-hour timeframe because of weather and holiday-related shipping issues. Tests that arrive to the lab too late yield “unsatisfactory results” and can’t be completed, the email said.

    CPS sent around 150,000 COVID-19 tests to more than 300 schools in neighborhoods hardest hit by the pandemic and experiencing lower vaccination rates. Students were asked to take the tests Tuesday, and parents were told to bring them to the nearest FedEx drop box the same day.

    But after pictures circulated on social media showing drop-off sites overflowing with boxes of completed tests this week, CPS officials extended the deadline to Thursday.

    Of the 35,817 CPS staff and student tests that were completed between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1, 1,975 were positive and 24,986 — or 69 percent — of tests were invalid, according to CPS’s COVID-19 dashboard.

    CPS officials did not immediately answer questions about testing or the return to school.

    About 34 percent of kids ages 5-11 in Chicago have gotten a first dose of vaccine, said Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

    About 12 percent of CPS elementary school students and 51% of high school students are fully vaccinated, according to Axios.

    At a CTU press conference Monday outside Park Manor Elementary School, 7037 S. Rhodes Ave. in Greater Grand Crossing, parent Zanelda Archer said she was among those who received notice that their students’ COVID-19 tests were unsatisfactory.

    “It’s very confusing how we took our time out to bring the children to comply with CPS and we got no results. How can I allow my children to come back and they don’t even have a negative or … positive result?”

    Park Manor parent Sonja Hammond said she’s keeping her kids home for now.

    “Make it make sense, mayor and CPS, why our kids are coming back Jan. 3, with no testing, where you don’t even see a positive or negative,” Hammond said. “… Until these kids are safe, my kids will be at home on remote learning.”

    Outside Brentano Math and Science Academy, 2723 N. Fairfield Ave. in Logan Square, one parent said she wasn’t able to get her vaccinated first grader tested before returning to school. But her daughter needs to be learning in-person, she said.

    “She can’t be home all the time. She needs to be around the other kids. She learns a lot better in person. I need the break,” the mother said.

    Across the street from the school, parent Rose Lamas helped her daughter put on her KN-95 mask and fastened her scarf around it. Before sending her inside the school, Lamas reminded her to always keep the mask on. 

    Lamas said she’s “not totally comfortable” with the return to school. She’s worried kids could have contracted COVID-19 at New Year’s Eve celebrations, after the district asked for tests to be returned.

    Parent Adriano Rocha pulled a disposable mask out of his second grade daughter’s sparkly unicorn backpack and helped her put it over her ears.

    “I feel comfortable bringing her. … But tomorrow, I don’t know,” he said. “Today is the first day coming back. I can change my mind tomorrow. We’re just taking it day by day right now, and doing the best we can.” 

    Credit: Mack Liederman/ Block Club Chicago
    Students return to school Monday after winter break at Brentano Math and Science Academy, 2723 N. Fairfield Ave. in Logan Square.

    CPS CEO Pedro Martinez has repeatedly said children are more at risk for getting COVID-19 when they’re home, with most cases in children coming from home while relatively few have been linked to schools.

    Martinez has pushed back against attempts to do district-wide remote learning, saying the all-virtual learning done during the start of the pandemic had detrimental effects on children’s mental and emotional wellbeing and educational progress.

    Before the weekend, he said he expected to see a significant number of cases in kids as school resumes.

    “We do expect cases to be high,” Martinez said. “The children have been in the community … . Any time that our children are not in school, we actually see more cases because they’re with family, they’re at events and, frankly, they have their guard down.”

    If a child is sick with cold- or flu-like symptoms, their parent should assume they have COVID-19, take their temperature and keep them home, Arwady said.

    Later Monday, officials said in a Facebook post that the district received 200,000 KN95 masks for teachers and staff.

    “We will be distributing these to schools shortly,” the post read.

    In a statement, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said schools are the safest place for students to be and called on parents to get their children vaccinated.

    “We have spent over $100 million on to put mitigations in place, most CPS staff members are vaccinated, and we generally see little transmission in schools settings,” Lightfoot said.

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