A car and several others drive north on S. Lake Park Ave. in Hyde Park, honking their horns in support of the Chicago Teachers Union on Saturday morning, Jan. 30.

Public school teachers in Hyde Park and Kenwood said in interviews with the Herald that they do not trust Chicago Public Schools can provide them or their students with safe work environments, as the district and Chicago Teachers Union sparred over reopening plans. 

As of Monday afternoon, there was no agreement between CPS and CTU on a plan to reopen the city's schools for in-person learning.

CPS, for its part, has invested tens of millions of dollars in personal protective equipment, air purifiers, extra janitors and audits of ventilation and air quality to ensure school safety upon the return of in-person learning.

But teachers at Hyde Park-Kenwood schools have independently said they do not trust CPS.

“There is nothing I want more than to be with my students in my classroom,” emailed Erin Henry, a sixth-grade teacher at Shoesmith Elementary, 1330 E. 50th St. “Remote learning is far from ideal, but teachers have worked tirelessly to create virtual classrooms that promote classroom community, continue rigorous instruction, and work to make students feel seen and heard.”

“In my opinion,” she continued, “I do not trust that CPS has created schools that will keep their staff and students safe.” Henry specifically raised issues with vaccination and with what would happen if someone in her pod got the coronavirus. In late January, CPS announced that district teachers would start getting vaccinated in mid-February, though the process could take time.

CPS policy for when an employee tests positive and a PCR test confirms it is that the school will notify families for students to quarantine for 14 days, during which they should get tested, while the employee isolates for 10 days. CPS's final reopening framework said that quarantine would be required for close contacts in the pod, defined as those who were less than 6 feet away from the case for more than 15 minutes.

Lauren Sommerfeld, who teaches middle school language arts and civics at Kozminski Community Academy, 936 E. 54th St., pointed out two-thirds of teachers who participated in a December CTU poll of membership voted against going back to teach students in classrooms.

"I know that there have been years that we don't even have replenished toilet paper, or I have to buy all my Kleenex or beg my students' families to bring in tissues," she said. "I have to buy every single cleaning supply ever used in my classroom."

Promises of plentiful sanitizing wipes, desk shields and hand sanitizer ring hollow, she said, as do the promises that HEPA air purifiers will be sufficient for each classroom. (CPS has told the Herald that every analyzed classroom in the neighborhood is safe for the return to in-school learning.)

"Here's the scare, and everybody knows it's real: in a month or in a week, when all those wipes are gone, and all the hand sanitizers used, we just never get what we're told we're supposed to get," Sommerfeld said. "It's going to be out of our pockets, and we all know it, and out of our parents' pockets."

Henry, the Shoesmith teacher, pointed out that the vaccine is here and that will only be a matter of time it is available to teachers.

“I do not want to stop teaching. I want to continue teaching, to continue showing up for my students every day in a manner that is safe and virtual,” she said. “We know we can wait a little longer and have this be a situation where more teachers feel safe and somewhat confident returning to their classrooms. Why rush it when we can see the light at the end of the tunnel?”

Scientists and doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics have called for schools to reopen safely. President Joe Biden has made school reopening a priority.

But a pair of studies from late December and early January suggest that in-person learning is risky when community transmission of COVID is high. In Europe, many schools are closing now, after staying open for much of the rest of the pandemic. 

In Hyde Park-Kenwood, private schools have been teaching students in their buildings since the fall, many with protocols in place that are similar to the ones proposed by CPS. Akiba-Schechter, 5235 S. Cornell Ave., and St. Thomas the Apostle, 5467 S. Woodlawn Ave., have both told the Herald in recent months that there have been no coronavirus outbreaks at the school.

On Friday, several Chicago physicians spoke with Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady to say the vaccine itself was not as key to opening schools as much as other anti-transmission safeguards. And on Monday, Principal Charlie Bright at Bret Harte Elementary, 1556 E. 56th St., reiterated what he had said weeks before, when pre-kindergarten classes were still meeting in-person in the building: that his classrooms were safe. He said, for instance, that purifiers are meant to work in concert with ventilation measures.

Eight Bret Harte teachers returned to the building on Monday, leaving many who remained at home against the instructions of CPS and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Bright said he understands their decisions.

"At the end of the day, I need my teachers to be in the building to be working with our students, so I hope that they can work out something that works for both sides," he said. "I'm not here to judge what's right or wrong. I just hope they can meet somewhere in the middle."

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