On Jan. 3, Quentin Washington emailed his decision to continue working remotely until Sadlowski Elementary had a safe reopening plan to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The virus took his cousin’s life earlier that week. None of his music students opted for in-person either, so Washington would be teaching online from an empty classroom.
“I love my babies, I do, and I miss them tremendously,” he said. “But I’m not trying to die as a result of trying to have them in the classroom.”
As a result of his decision, he received notice that his Chicago Public Schools (CPS) account would shut down on Jan. 11 and he had to swipe in on school grounds to regain access.
Sadlowski Elementary in East Side on E 105th St. enrolled 620 students in 2019-2020, 92.6% of whom identified as Hispanic and 87.3% as low-income, based on CPS School Profile Information. About a dozen students showed up to school on Jan. 11, according to Washington. He said around 200 are expected on Feb. 1, but that figure has been dropping.
Before entering the school building on Jan. 12, he needed to pass the CPS Health Screener. If one or more symptoms like a cough, sore throat, headache or runny nose are detected, Washington would have to self-quarantine for 10 to 14 days. He said ‘yes’ to experiencing some of the cold symptoms he gets every winter and failed the health screener.
Unable to enter his virtual or physical classrooms, Washington rejoined his colleagues in the freezing cold for the teach-out he scheduled the same day. CPS opened his portal for the last class of the afternoon, then shut it back off. Washington has since been locked out of his account — unable to work and therefore without pay — while his students learn from, ironically, remote substitute teachers.
“You can’t tell me in one breath, ‘You failed the health screener, you can’t enter the building,’ but then in the other breath, you lock me out from being able to work remotely,” Washington said.
He’s not the only teacher locked out.
Brentano Elementary prekindergarten teacher Kirstin Roberts also lost access after both refusing to teach in an empty classroom and failing the CPS Health Screener. Outcry from parents of Roberts’ students and the Chicago Teachers Union restored her access, but she said there are at least 80 other teachers still locked out. CTU Communications Director Chris Geovanis said that number could be up to 100, and local news outlets reported nearly 150. Multiple schools have held teach-outs like Sadlowski, as CTU negotiates to avoid a strike.
“One of the things that frustrates me about what our school system is doing right now is they are completely disrupting what we have been able to build around remote education,” Roberts said. “They’re destroying the remote education of the majority in order to force through the unsafe in-person schooling for a small minority.”
Washington and Roberts are two of many CPS educators and parents concerned with the reopening plan. WBEZ reported on Jan. 22 that fewer than 20% of students chose to return to classrooms when given the option.
Meanwhile, many of Chicago’s private schools have been open since the fall.
The Archdiocese of Chicago ordered the city’s Catholic schools to reopen in early July, releasing a basic framework for schools to follow. Northside Catholic Academy (NCA) in Edgewater quickly developed strategies for in-person learning that have resulted in zero cases of COVID-19 transmission within school buildings.
“It’s all been about teamwork,” Principal Christine Huzenis said. “It’s remarkable and can get me all choked up to think about what everybody put in to make this happen. Kids, parents, teachers, administration, everybody.”
Huzenis said her team originally thought transmission might send them all home within two weeks in the fall. She said other schools have faced issues with sports leagues, such as hockey, football and gymnastics, that have sent whole grade levels into quarantine, but NCA families have followed school guidelines.
Masks, air purifiers in every classroom, cracked windows, social distancing and limiting student movement while teachers travel between classrooms are some of the NCA’s safety protocols. While an ever-shrinking number of students choose to stay remote, the superintendent required all teachers to return in the fall, even those who raised health concerns.
“I had a group of teachers that once they got over the obstacle of what was being asked of them, they were dedicated enough to know … being back in school was important for kids academically and socially and emotionally,” Huzenis said.
St. Ignatius College Prep in Little Italy opened its doors in August, with its 1400 students split between two days in-person and three online. The school’s student body is nearly 70% white, according to the school’s website. Tuition for the 2020-2021 school year is $19,850, and less than a third of students receive financial aid. Thus far, no adult in the school community has received COVID-19 from a student, according to St. Ignatius Chief Administrative Officer Megan Kennedy. She said she wanted to credit all the staff and school community members who have worked on efforts to reopen.
“We’ve been fortunate that we think our protocols here are working, especially wearing a mask,” Kennedy said. “We think that that is the main reason we’re doing so well.”
The Human Resource Director at St. Ignatius finds solutions for individuals who opt out of in-person learning on a case-by-case basis, said Kennedy, unlike educators in CPS who must request Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accomodations.
“They have denied thousands and thousands of members their own request for accommodation to allow them to continue to teach remotely, even when they’ve got no kids coming back,” Geovanis said. “We have one member with a brain tumor who was denied an accommodation that would’ve allowed her to continue to teach remotely.”
According to the city’s COVID Dashboard, over 80,000 of Chicago’s 225,000 cases identified as Hispanic, with the next highest ethnic group categorized as “unknown” at about 50,000 cases. COVID-19 has taken the lives of almost 1,800 Black residents and nearly 1,600 Latinx Chicagoans, which form a combined 72% of the city’s total deaths from the virus.
“That is very different than a white, upper-middle class neighborhood on the Northwest side,” Geovanis said. “Those families are coming in with vastly less risk because of the situation that their households are in, the situation that their neighborhoods are in, than a kid who’s coming from a neighborhood like Little Village … these are not just working-class families, these are multigenerational families that live in very close quarters, often in crowded housing.”
Geovanis also spoke about the holes in the plan for special needs students alone, which she said “you could drive a Mack truck through.” One teacher told her about a student with autism who just wanted a hug to calm down, and though she was terrified to do so because of the virus, she relented and took him in her arms. Geovanis said teachers and students shouldn’t have to be put in that position when remote education has proven successful.
“I think that CPS is being inhumane, they’re being insensitive to the fact that educators are traumatized, just like students have been traumatized,” Washington said. “And they’re not considering that in these decisions.”
Monroe Elementary teacher Lori Torres was approved for her ADA request long after her doctor submitted her paperwork in December. She followed up and learned it wasn’t received, so Torres sent the documents herself on Jan. 25, the day she was due back to school. She described the process as “a nightmare.”
Torres said funding, infrastructure, class sizes and waivers accepting risk have allowed private schools to successfully operate in-person while CPS is more “multilayered.” Still, the mother of three said it is sad that CPS parents have to fight for a better school environment.
“One thing we as parents need to recognize is that our voice should be one that is heard, collectively,” she said. “Not the voices of one over the other but our voices in unison. We need to push so that our decision makers make decisions with us rather than [for] us.”
Those decision makers, Washington noted, operate remotely while sending teachers to become essential workers, even when their students choose remote. Some in-person students work on computers at their desks anyway, raising questions about why to reopen at all, he said.
“This is not about equity,” Washington said. “Because if this was truly about equity, no teacher would have ever been locked out of their classroom, no student would have ever been deprived the opportunity to be educated from their teacher.”
CPS did not respond to multiple requests for comment.