Chicago Teachers point the way forward for safer schools

When Chicago teachers saw how bad the Omicron wave was following the new year, they chose to teach remotely. Instead, the city Mayor locked them out from work and continued to prioritize the economy over people’s safety.

Teachers put their students and their community first; they have throughout this pandemic. That’s why it’s been disappointing to watch politicians and others disparage teachers or ignore their concerns, as they’ve been doing in Chicago.

Chicago teachers, organized in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), have been fighting their city establishment for safer schools. Lessons from their fight include their democratic organizing, centering anti-racism, and their willingness to stand up not just against Trump and his ilk, but against the Democratic Party establishment. These are lessons for all of us here in Tacoma who want a safer school and a safer community.

When Chicago teachers returned to work following the new year, they did so skeptically and cautiously. The Omicron surge was in full blast, the hospitals were, and still are, overwhelmed, and the city’s plan to test students before returning to class failed spectacularly. 

The city had sent roughly half the student body mail-in COVID-19 tests in an attempt to limit contagious students returning to the classroom following the break. But the COVID-19 tests overwhelmed FedEx and pictures of the mountains of COVID-19 tests that clearly were not going to make it to a lab in the necessary time frame made it into the media.

Of course, understaffed and under-resourced schools pre-date the pandemic, and teachers were already exhausted by their working conditions. Still, COVID-19 has only increased the burden teachers carry.

Chicago teacher Kirstin Roberts told Tempest Magazine in an interview, “The schools constantly feel chaotic, understaffed, and like nobody can do their jobs. It’s just a hard, stressful place to be. Very similar, I think, to what hospitals are facing and a lot of other workplaces from short-staffing. You just never feel like you’re accomplishing anything.”

Teachers quickly realized just how unsafe school had become, and by the second day back they decided the best course of action, for themselves and their students, was to stay home and teach remotely. 

As Roberts put it, “We’re in the middle of a terrible surge of over twenty percent positivity. The hospitals are filling. We’re scared for our students. We’re scared for ourselves. We’re scared for our communities. So, we decided not to go into work and try to teach remotely.”

They told the city of their plans, and the city, headed by Democrat Mayor Lori Lightfoot, chose to lock-out the teachers rather than let them teach remotely. A lock-out is when an employer refuses to let their workers work. Sort of like a reverse strike.

Worse, Mayor Lightfoot, a former prosecutor, actively scapegoated the teachers throughout the lock-out.

The lock-out affected all public-school teachers, even the ones who teach online full time in Chicago’s Virtual Academy, a 100% remote school. What can explain this decision by Lightfoot?

Chicago school nurse Dennis Kosuth, also interviewed by Tempest Magazine, argued that what “Lightfoot is doing, which is very much in line with Republicans, is promoting this idea that the union, the workers who are employed in schools who do the actual educating, provide the services, all the rest of it, should have no say in the operation of their workplaces.”

At least one big aspect of all this is the Mayor saying she’s in charge, and the teachers and other school workers need to shut up and do their job.

As Kosuth goes on to point out, “Her own kid goes to a private school that has been remote. Her ‘let them eat cake’ approach to the rest of the city of Chicago is completely hypocritical. But that’s where she’s coming from. It’s her way or the highway.”

The teachers’ demands were simple enough: increase testing, set up metrics for closing school when case rates are high, and close for about two weeks while the surge levels out and hospitals recover.

Ultimately, the lock-out ended when teachers voted to accept Lightfoot’s offer to create the metrics and deliver KN-95 respirators, but the vote was contentious suggesting that many educators still felt the workplace unsafe.

These dynamics of pushing for everything open regardless of the cost is relatable for all of us here in Tacoma and across the country. Things have changed since Democrats took control of each branch of the federal government and Democratic-run cities like Chicago, Seattle, and Tacoma are not addressing the crisis like the Republicans are. But that doesn’t mean it’s good.

As Roberts explains, unlike the Republics, “what the Democratic Party does is look at the science, look at the number of cases and deaths, and say, ‘We’re not going to let that stand in the way of the economy.’”.

As the teachers in Chicago have shown us, we don’t need to let the Democrats sell us out for the sake of the economy. There is an alternative, but it takes organizing to do so. The teachers were able to take the steps they took because they are organized and actively participating in a union that prioritizes democratic practices.

Each step of this fight involved full engagement and voting by the teachers, from choosing to teach remotely to accepting the city’s compromise, each step was driven by the teachers’ democracy.

Our own faculty and campus workers need a union, but more important than any formal union is the need for us to be organized democratically and with our community’s interests in the front. 

Otherwise, our local politicians will continue to count on our votes while simply pursuing what’s best for business, not people.