About 1/3 of eligible CPS students intend to return to school next year, but CTU says ‘all options’ are on the table if it doesn’t agree schools are safe to reopen

Hannah Leone, Chicago Tribune

More than 77,000 students have opted to return to classrooms in person in the new year, accounting for 37% of those who are eligible, according to data presented at Wednesday’s Chicago Board of Education meeting.

That is, of course, if they return. The Chicago Teachers Union last week filed a motion with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board for an injunction over Chicago Public Schools’ plan that would have students in pre-kindergarten and moderate to severe special education cluster programs return Jan. 11. Other students in kindergarten through sixth grade, and most seventh and eighth graders, would start a hybrid model on Feb. 1.

White families opted in at the highest rates, with more than 67% of white students selecting the in-person option. The opt-in rate was 55% for multiracial students, 34% for Black students, 33% for Asian students and 31% for Latino students. Students with special education plans, who the district identified as needing in-person learning the most, opted in at lower than average rates, 36%, as did economically disadvantaged students, 32%.

By the numbers, that’s 30,100 Latino students, 23,400 Black students, 18,000 white students, 3,400 Asian students and 1,800 multiracial students. That makes white families significantly over-represented, accounting for 23% of the total number of elementary school families opting but only 11% of the CPS student population.

While CPS CEO Janice Jackson drew attention to the overall number of Black and Latino students far surpassing the number of white students, Chicago Teachers Union president Jesse Sharkey said that’s only because the district mostly serves students of color and the focus should be on the fact that white students are the most likely to receive in-person instruction come January.

District officials pointed out the majority of students in other big cities such as New York and Houston have chosen to continue remote learning.

Sharkey said it’s not right that while families have the option to continue remote learning for their child, teachers aren’t being given the same choice.

“But we do have a choice. The CTU objects to this plan without the board bargaining over our proposals about safety, equity and trust,” Sharkey said. “Right now we are campaigning and also in court but our union will have to have an internal discussion about what to do next if we can’t reach agreements about how to make our schools safe for everyone, and when we have those discussions, all options are going to be on the table.”

Sharkey said he hopes they can resolve the disagreement and it’s better for everyone if the board and union can present a unified plan, but implied the CTU is ready to take whatever action they find necessary.

“Right now, the lack of a clear public health metric, and the lack of a mechanism by which we can say, ‘Yeah, we know that the things which downtown is saying are going to be true in your school’ — the lack of these two things is going to make our union campaign in a way which is going to have very real consequences for this whole city,” Sharkey said.

Since CPS set the coronavirus case doubling time as the metric to watch, the CTU has said that’s not clear enough and is demanding a 3% positivity rate be the threshold for closing schools.

Marielle Fricchione, a pediatrics and infectious disease specialist with city health department, pointed out that while New York had used the 3% metric, the city has since dropped it in favor of a testing plan.

“Other cites may use other metrics,” Fricchione said. “Positivity rate has certainly been shown to be a false metric for school reopening. Even though it has been used, that doesn’t mean it’s the best metric.”

“When public health is proposing is we use all the data available to us and changing metrics, it’s not a reflection of chaos,” Fricchione said. “Changing metrics is a reflection of good science.”

Board of Education President Miguel del Valle asked Fricchione to explain why positivity rate was no longer the metric to watch and how people could be assured the metric would not change again in another month or two.

“We’ve said time and time again this is evolving and it continues to evolve, but that metric stuck in people’s minds and it’s still there and it’s being used as a reason to keep from supporting, to keep parents and others, teachers, from supporting a plan that today is based on a metric that you say is the right metric to be used,” del Valle said. “So one more time, what do we say to parents and communities that have been tracking that positivity rate? It was mentioned here today in public participation several times that there are some communities that have higher rates than others, so there is concern about those schools in those zip codes.”

The metric might change again, as experts are still learning and have learned so much since the first wave, Fricchione said.

“The doubling time proposition is an interim guidance on school reopening safety. It’s an interim proxy for control of the outbreak,” she said.

hleone@chicagotribune.com