Fighting back tears as he delivered a message to Chicago Public Schools and city leaders Wednesday, special education teacher Brian Yuhas suggested the district acted punitively when it locked dozens of educators out of their online classrooms this week, a move he said hurt the students more than teachers.
The Uplift Community High School teacher said many of his students live in a residential care facility rather than their family homes and are among those with “the greatest needs in all of CPS.”
Yet when the district locked Yuhas and dozens of other CPS staff members out of their Google Classrooms on Tuesday for defying repeated orders last week to report back to the school in person, he asserts the students inexplicably were left without a substitute and the consistency that’s paramount to their success and well-being.
What’s more, Yuhas and others said at a Wednesday morning news conference — staged by the Chicago Teachers Union outside the Belmont Cragin home of Board of Education President Miguel del Valle — that none of their students elected to return to in-person instruction.
“I get a call at 10 o’clock in the morning from a case manager at a facility that most of my students live at. ... She says, ‘Mr. Yuhas, why is there no teacher in the classroom?’” He explained that he was locked out of his account, adding CPS administrators “should’ve made sure there was a substitute in the classroom.”
“I realized that my administration had taken their teacher away from his students — that were all remote — only because I wasn’t in the building. Those kids showed up to class, and there wasn’t a person there ready to greet them and ready to instruct them,” Yuhas continued, pausing to apologize as he was overcome with emotion.
CPS and city officials have maintained that, after delaying a return to in-person classes several times, they’re reopening schools in a careful, phased-in way after making a $100 million investment in safeguards to protect students and staff from coronavirus exposure. Only some preschool and special education students resumed classroom instruction Monday, with most kindergarten through eighth graders due to return Feb. 1, if parents have chosen to send them. No startup date has been set for high schools.
CPS leaders have stressed the importance of offering an in-person option for families whose children have struggled with remote learning. At the same time, officials have said they expect staff who have not been given health-related or other accommodations to report to work in schools and are following through on clearly stated consequences for those who have refused.
About 60% of teachers due back on Jan. 4 showed — a figure the district revised upward after initially saying about half the teachers were absent. By Monday, about 71% of teachers and 81% of paraprofessional staff expected back were present, and that was after CPS began sending emails to the holdouts, reminding them they could be disciplined for their actions.
Still, more than 500 teachers were not in attendance Monday, and 235 employees failed health screens. CPS said it issued final notices last week to 210 employees who didn’t show in person. On Monday, 145 of them who were again absent faced the harshest consequences, with the district delivering on warnings that, starting Tuesday, it would lock those employees out of their Google Classroom and email accounts, and withhold pay.
At Wednesday’s CTU news conference, six other teachers also detailed their experiences being locked out of the remote teaching platform. They explained the choice to speak in front of del Valle’s house, demanding a meeting with del Valle, CPS CEO Janice Jackson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot to discuss what the ousted teachers consider a rushed, flawed and dangerous reopening plan.
Three of the educators said they repeatedly requested accommodations to continue working remotely because they care for their children or elderly relatives. Maria Xoy, a teaching assistant in a preschool classroom, said she is a caregiver for her 85-year-old grandmother; Marina Ruiz, a special education classroom assistant, holds a power of attorney for the care of her mother, who is in hospice; and 14-year preschool veteran teacher Diane Castro said she has no child care for her two young children.
The district instead suggested she send them to two different schools for a total of four in-person days each week, Castro said.
“They never informed me I was denied,” she said. “I will not risk my children.”
CPS has said it approved 100% of accommodation or leave requests from staff members with underlying medical conditions who applied under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But as of late last year, less than 20% of requests had been approved from those who said they live with someone with a serious medical condition, and less than half of the total requests had been granted.
Other speakers at the union news conference, however, said they never received a response about the status of their requests, only letters demanding they return to their school in person a week before the first wave of students were due back Monday.
Except there are no in-person learners in any of their classrooms, they said.
Quetzalli Castro, a seventh grade CPS teacher, said she is due to return to the school building Jan. 25 and be ready to receive students Feb. 1, in the next wave of the reopening. She has not yet faced consequences but says she does not plan to return because she feels it is not safe.
“What I am seeing is more questions coming up than we see answers,” she said.
“I cannot stand by while I see the mayor says that it is safe enough to reopen schools but at the same time extends the city of Chicago’s stay-at-home advisory. I can’t stand by while the mayor and CPS are willing to double the children’s chances of exposure and send them to two different schools in a week simply because their parents are CPS staff and are unwilling to provide parents with accommodation,” Quetzalli Castro said.
Sol Camano is a preschool teacher at Prieto Elementary School in the Hanson Park neighborhood. Like others, the second-year educator said none of her students elected in-person instruction, likely because the community currently is battling a 16% positivity rate, she said.
“All my students have chosen remote learning, yet CPS has demanded that I return to school and put my own health at risk. Monday I was locked out of my CPS resources and accounts, and (Tuesday) I did not get to teach my students,” she said, explaining her 4- and 5-year-old students “rely heavily on routine and schedule,” which she contends is “vital for their development.”
“I cannot wait to be back in the classroom with my students, but now is not the time to reopen our schools. It’s far too dangerous. ... We can continue to teach remotely and impact our students in positive ways,” Camano said. “A parent said to me yesterday, ‘Maestra, I am with you. I stand with you because you are my child’s parent too. You’re with him every day too. You care for him just as I do. We stand together.’”