Chicago Public Schools students stage walkout over return to in-person learning amid lackluster COVID precautions

·7 min read

Classes might be back in session for Chicago Public Schools, but students are worried about the health consequences of that return.

This week the Chicago Teachers Union voted to approve a COVID-19 agreement with Chicago Public Schools on Wednesday, formally putting an end to their latest dispute over school safety, but some students decided to participate in a walkout at their respective schools to protest what they feel is a lack of classroom safety amid the pandemic.

The Chicago Public Schools Radical Youth Alliance (Chi-Rads) led the walkout at 12:30 p.m., which culminated in a 1:45 p.m. rally that involved at least 500 students outside CPS headquarters at 42 W. Madison St.

“Students have demanded and teachers have demanded for the safety of people in our school communities. We know this has not happened,” Catlyn Savado, 14, a freshman at Percy L. Julian High School on the Far South Side, said via megaphone on school grounds during the walkout. “We know what keeps us safe. Only the community knows what they need to keep the community safe. They increase the police budget, but we don’t have a mental health department at our schools. CTU has been fighting for nurses, social workers and psychologists in every single Chicago public school and even within a pandemic, that isn’t happening. That ain’t right.”

Savado was a lead organizer of the walkout joined by her peers — some yelling, some jumping up and down, others walking with laptops in their hand and school IDs still prominent around their necks — but many were commiserating among themselves, talking about attending the rally, going home or going back to school after the protest.

Charnice Jones, 16, of Englewood, found out about plans for the walkout earlier in the week. She said Savado is doing the right thing. She thinks the walkout will change the narrative if the right people hear the students. Jones also was planning to attend the the rally.

“There needs to be a lot more COVID precautions — people are in there, not even wearing their masks, everybody, the whole school,” she said.

Landé Henderson, 14, and Ceanna Anderson, 14, were surprised that the school administration didn’t stop the walkout. It was their first. They said their parents were aware of their participation.

Henderson said that while masks are available at school, they are often ones that are hard to breathe through. He said if face shields were an option, he’d prefer those.

“They do pass out masks, but in our reading class, it’s the only class that desks are wiped down. In other classes they don’t do that,” Henderson said. “In our biology table, we will write on it with an eraser just to see if they will clean the tables off and it will still be there. They don’t wipe the tables down.”

“Before, they used to spray the knobs on doors we used to touch, but that was the only thing I saw them do at the beginning of the school year. They’re not doing it anymore.”

Savado was happy about the turnout. Dozens of youth participated in her school. But she said she would have been happy even if it was her and two peers.

“At first, I was kind of scared, as we see, we have SROs (school resource officers). I don’t know why we have three police cars for a group of 70 Black students, but it did what it had to do,” she said.

Savado said Chi-Rads formed less than a week ago after Black and brown students felt teachers, parents, CPS and CTU weren’t listening to them. The tipping point was the CTU vote to approve the COVID-19 agreement.

“The momentum has always been there and always manifesting itself as we all have grown up in this city and constantly feel those systems of oppression,” she said. “The day we found out the house of delegates voted for the “safety proposal” — and honestly what safety are we talking about? That was when we said we’re doing a walkout. There is no way we can put down on that or tolerate that at all.”

Savado had expected several hundred students at the rally. She said funds were provided to students to make the trip downtown on public transportation.

“When we do come out swinging, we need to swing for everyone,” she said. “The models of bargaining and what that looks like when CTU sits at that table at the beginning of the year, they can say we want this, we want this. And by the middle of the school year, we see all that has been water-downed and diluted and folks can’t even come together on a safety agreement. Which they have, but it hasn’t even been implemented. We want less listening and more implementing.”

Chi-Rads demands were put in a letter sent to city and school officials this week.

Demands include: public acknowledgment of mistakes, apologies made to CTU and bringing students to the table when talking about COVID-19 safety plans, so that student voices are prioritized. The group’s demands also include more social distancing in schools, better access to masks and tests, laptops for remote learning and more cleaning products in every classroom.

“Folks have their eyes on young people right now,” Savado said. “We’ve seen it already — New York, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Oakland, Seattle — have actually reached out to us and shown their solidarity with us because they saw our letter of declaration, which is really cool. They’ve seen that common thread all across the country and now people’s eyes are on us. Specifically in this city, where we know not only is the pandemic an issue but gun violence is a pandemic too.”

By early afternoon the rally at CPS headquarters was in full effect. At times, passing cars began honking along to the cheering crowd, which began a new chant every few minutes that said something about COVID-19 safety or criticized Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Many in the group waved signs with slogans such as, “Masks are disposable. CPS students are not.”

Michael Willis, a sophomore at Chicago Military Academy in Bronzeville, said he showed up Friday to take a stand against Lightfoot, who he described as “not doing anything” to protect children from COVID-19.

”The teachers are helping us,” Willis said. “They want our voices.”

Marly Gonzalez, a freshman at Curie High School on the Southwest Side, said it felt “amazing” to see the turnout, but she added it was important to remember the purpose of the protest.

”I feel unsafe (back in school) because there’s so many people who don’t wear their mask correctly and you don’t know if you got COVID,” Gonzalez said. “We need our safety to be known.”

More than an hour after the protest began downtown, the crowd marched east and blocked traffic at State and Madison Streets. Students circled up, danced and continued to chant anti-Lightfoot messages, before one person scaled a pole amid a backdrop of swearing about the mayor. Less than 15 minutes later, organizers encouraged the group to go home and the crowd dispersed.

Some remained on Madison Street to scrawl messages, and the communist hammer and sickle symbol in chalk in front of CPS headquarters.

CPS issued a statement about the walkout: “Chicago Public Schools (CPS) remains committed to fostering learning environments that allow students to respectfully deliberate issues with evidence and an open mind — and safely participate in civic action. It is appropriate in classes or special school events to create an environment where students of all viewpoints feel that they can express themselves in a safe and respectful environment.”

During the talks between CTU and CPS over the last two weeks, many youth have turned to social media to bring awareness to their experience, as have parents and teachers. One Kenwood parent thought it was too soon to go back to classrooms, given the time of year for flu and pneumonia, while Rick Coppola, a 7th grade teacher at South Loop Elementary and co-editor of Language Arts Journal, posted on social media about his return to school this week, only to find out he tested positive for COVID-19 after exposing dozens of students to it. He too preferred a remote situation.

Coppola wasn’t aware of the walkout until today.

“Students come into our classrooms with powerful ways of knowing and they are experiencing this pandemic in ways different from the adults,” he said. “They definitely deserve their seat at the table. We have missed the opportunity to have a nuanced response to the pandemic and it’s effect on various priority groups served by the district.”

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