Chicago’s School Dispute Intensifies

More turmoil in Chicago

Some Chicago teachers are due back in school buildings today as the city begins its bitterly contested return to in-person teaching. But not every teacher is showing up.

The Chicago Teachers Union, which has been pushing back against the city’s reopening plan, said some of its members are refusing to return, citing safety concerns.

“We don’t want to lose our jobs,” Lori Torres, a public-school teacher, said at a news conference, as reported by The Chicago Tribune. “Many of us are the sole income earners in our homes. But the fear of this virus is greater than that fear.”

“I made the decision to refuse to re-enter the building because I think it is extremely unsafe and I am in fear for my life,” added Quentin Washington, an elementary school music teacher and union member.

Preschool and some special education teachers were told to return to school buildings today to prepare for a Jan. 11 reopening. Teachers for kindergarten through eighth grade are scheduled to return on Jan. 25, ahead of a Feb. 1 reopening.

The union said some members would not report to work Monday in defiance of the district, the third-largest in the nation. The number of holdouts was unclear.

“It is the district’s expectation that teachers without an accommodation report to work, just as principals, custodial staff, engineers, and food service staff have throughout the entirety of the pandemic,” Emily Bolton, a spokeswoman for the district, said in a statement.

A majority of the city’s aldermen also expressed concern about the reopening plan in a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the chief executive of public schools, Janice Jackson.

“These tensions are playing out not just in Chicago, but in cities around the country,” my colleague Kate Taylor, who is reporting on the dispute, told me. “The positions are particularly extreme in Chicago, particularly the position of the teachers union. The union has taken one of the strongest positions against reopening of any union in the country.”

In related news: A board member of the Chicago Teachers Union was criticized for writing on Twitter that schools are unsafe for teachers while taking a vacation in the Caribbean.

English learners backslide

Remote learning has been hard for students across the country. But few have had a harder time than children coming from immigrant households who rarely speak English at home.

“I became more shy because I can’t really talk with other students anymore in online class,” said Taniya Ria, a sixth grader who moved to New York City from Bangladesh in 2019. “I feel like the year is going to waste.”

When she first arrived, Taniya didn’t know a word of English. Within months, she began translating for her mother, made American friends in class and got good grades. Then the pandemic arrived.

This fall, she took classes on an iPhone from her family’s one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, struggling to understand her teachers through the tiny screen. Words and grammar she once knew evaporated, along with her hard-won confidence.

“It’s hard for me to explain what I want to say correctly,” Taniya said. “And there are so many people in class, I get nervous about making a mistake.”

Schools During Coronavirus ›

Class Disrupted

Updated Jan. 4, 2021

The latest on how the pandemic is reshaping education.

    • Putting teachers on TV is the latest strategy to try to reach students without internet or computers during the pandemic.
    • Congress is sending more money to schools, but Covid-related costs and declining state funding are driving districts toward a financial “death spiral.”
    • Recent graduates are struggling to get hired as one of America’s formerly most stable industries cuts tens of thousands of jobs.

    She’s not alone. English language learners in parts of Virginia, California and Maryland are falling behind more than their peers, according to district data.

    In schools, students learn English directly and in more subtle ways, by observing teachers’ facial expressions and other students’ responses to directions. But small cues rarely translate through a screen.

    When Taniya first noticed her English slipping in September, she would read to herself out loud, pulling from a towering stack of picture books and young adult novels piled on her dresser.

    But over time, it became harder to pronounce the words and took longer to finish each chapter. Eventually, she stopped trying. “I feel like it’s all my fault,” she said.

    Around the world

    The $900 billion pandemic relief bill will provide $82 billion for education: about $54 billion for K-12 schools and $22.7 billion for colleges and universities.

    College update

    The University of Michigan opened its famous stadium, The Big House, to vaccinate the campus community.

    The college football playoffs moved from the Rose Bowl, in California, to Texas, because of coronavirus restrictions.

    An analysis: Our colleague Kurt Streeter took aim at college football. “Who will be college football’s next national champion, Alabama or Ohio State?” he wrote. “The correct answer should be neither.” (Kurt awards the moral victory to the University of Connecticut, which preemptively canceled its entire season.)

    An idea: Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of sociology and medicine at Temple University, wrote in The Atlantic about how colleges can help students stay enrolled. Many need emergency financial aid.

    A good read: Schools like Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a medium-size regional state campus in western Pennsylvania, educate huge sections of the American public. But budget cuts have devastated the campus community.

    K-12 update

    President-elect Joe Biden appointed Miguel Cardona, the chief of Connecticut Schools, to be education secretary. Teachers in the state praised Cardona for his flexibility and transparency during the pandemic.

    Gov. Gavin Newsom of California unveiled a $2 billion plan aimed at getting elementary school students back in classrooms starting in February. The effort may be the first state-led large-scale funding plan to reopen schools.

    Gov. Jim Justice plans to reopen all middle and elementary schools in West Virginia by Jan. 19, regardless of county infection rates. Teachers and school staff over 50 will have priority in getting a vaccine.

    Ohio will prioritize adults who work in school buildings for vaccines.

    The United Kingdom closed all primary schools in London for the next two weeks, in an effort to combat a new and more contagious coronavirus variant.

    A good read: Perry Stein and Laura Meckler of The Washington Post looked closely at the turmoil in Washington, D.C. It’s a damning tale of mismanagement, mistrust and shifting demands: “A close look at the District’s experience shows how hard it has been to develop workable strategies — and how much power teachers wield, particularly when they have a strong union behind them.”

    An opinion: “The departing education secretary, Betsy DeVos, will be remembered as perhaps the most disastrous leader in the Education Department’s history,” The Times editorial board wrote.

    Hope or despair?

    The fall semester was, perhaps, the worst ever. Now, even as cases reach their highest levels ever, vaccines are slowly becoming available. How do you think the spring semester will go?

    Write to us here. We will share some of your reflections in a future edition of this newsletter.

    Sign up here to get the briefing by email.

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