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“I Want to Thank the Staff That Held the Line”: Interview with a Chicago Teacher

Earlier this month, teachers in Chicago voted to resume remote learning rather than return to unsafe working conditions. In response, Chicago Mayor, Lori Lightfoot locked the teachers out of their classes and threatened to stop paying them. After a few days, the Chicago Teachers Union’s House of Delegates voted to suspend the teachers’ action and called them to in person classes. We spoke to a Chicago teacher about this struggle and what it means for educators across the country.

Left Voice

January 17, 2022
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Students hold sign that reads "Safe schools should not be a debate."
Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune

As Omicron surges and hospitalizations skyrocket, the policy of the Biden administration and the CDC has been “go to work” regardless of whether safety measures are in place and whether there is enough PPE, testing, and tracing. Due to huge amount of Covid-19 cases and a lack of safety measures to keep schools open, the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) voted to move to remote learning. In response, Mayor Lori Lightfoot locked teachers out of remote teaching and threatened to put them on “no pay” status. After drawing the ire of Democrats and Republican leaders across the country, the CTU’s House of Delegates voted to suspend the teachers’ action before it was able to be voted on by the rank and file. Left Voice interviewed Hala Karim, a Chicago teacher first at the start of the CTU action and again now that teachers are back in the classrooms. 

Why did CTU members initially vote to go remote?

The unsafe, inhospitable conditions in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and across the nation have been brewing since the fall. Many of our issues, such as understaffing, have been present long before the pandemic, but they’ve been completely exacerbated in this new world. Since our complete return, we have seen our fellow staff members and students get sick and stay out for days or weeks at a time. We simply don’t have staff present to take their place. And even when we do, this spells inconsistency for the kids. My seventh and eighth grade students are volleyed between our school cadres, substitutes, miscellaneous staff, and their regular teachers. They might be split up and follow different classes. They might stay in their homeroom class all day. If all the stars are aligned, we might just have a regular day with our normal schedule. A few classes at my school have been flipped remote throughout the year, but we always hear about it through word of mouth. We don’t get an official notice of which classes are being flipped. There is a new obstacle and new hurdle to beat every day we walk into our doors. The MOA agreement that CTU had in place with CPS last spring that mandated that every staff and student successfully complete a health screener before walking in the building and get temperature checks expired, and CPS put absolutely nothing in its place. CPS relieved itself of all liability before we fully returned in the fall. So, things have been a little messy.

Approaching winter break, we were introduced to a new variant and inundated with headlines about rising hospitalizations and overcrowded ICUs, and all our existing issues plus a new host of issues came to a head then. We collectively asked, what are we doing? What is our district doing? What is our union leadership team doing? One colleague of mine said she felt like union leadership was running all the right rhetoric but refusing to actually act while letting the clock run out. She mentioned that the neoliberally-run AFT has been in lock step with the Biden administration in wanting all schools to be running in person. It’s been hard to ignore how our revolutionary union has dragged their feet this entire school year! 

Leadership held an all-member meeting shortly before we were set to return in January, and tensions and anxiety were incredibly high! One of our members, David, has since gone viral for mentioning the revolting state of his classroom by mentioning he saw, not a mouse, but “A WHOLE RAT” run across his classroom! This school year was also my first watching a rodent scurry across my floor. It wasn’t cute, I’ll say that. Our schools are not clean. But I think that meeting put some wheels in motion and got us to the first House of Delegates vote in which the majority voted to push for an all-member vote for emergency remote learning. 73% of our members voted “yes” to begin the remote action, and we started working remotely the next day.

What was the reaction to the vote and to Lori Lightfoot’s lockout?

The educator crew I roll with is pretty much in agreement that this was the right decision, but that’s my own little echo chamber, so I’ll step outside that for a second. The staff in my building was VERY relieved and thrilled with the vote! Our group chat is usually pretty barren, and I was happy to see it bustling for once. Teachers that I know to be complete gunners for in-person pandemic learning said they believed that, temporarily, this was the right choice. They knew the conditions of our buildings! They knew that they were not functioning! They knew that the risk of getting sick and of our poor kids getting sick was greater than the reward! I can’t name one teacher who disagreed with the vote when it was passed!

Then came the lockout — which we were warned about. Our emails coming from leadership told us it was likely to happen. They gave us guidance about what to do in response. I was prepared to do it. Many of us continued our remote action until the second vote came through. But I think the scare tactic did its damage on Day 1. We were locked out of all accounts, restricted from doing our work, separated from our parents and student contacts. Of course this made people uncomfortable! It made me quite uncomfortable. I certainly wished it didn’t have to happen. Staff couldn’t clock in virtually to report themselves as teleworking. Still, I think most of the frustration and anger was pointed in the right direction — which was at the people that locked us out. But I do think this was a moment in which people had to ask themselves, do I risk not getting paid? Do I risk staying locked out for this extended length of time? CPS made it very easy for people to turn on their fellow union siblings! Go in the building and get your account unlocked! So, a few people in my own building began doing that. I know of at least a couple schools where many staff members had returned by the second day. I have to thank any and all staff that continued to hold the line for the entire time, because they showed real courage and they showed that they were willing to fight for the common good. I’ll never forget that, especially because this is really my first work action with the union!

Can you explain the conditions in which teachers were forced to come back to work in person? How do you feel about how it happened?

It was very strange to me how this all went down. On the morning of January 11, members across the district were engaged in actions in every neighborhood. A few of my colleagues and I organized a teachout on the sidewalk of our school. We made signs. We had a table. We brought hot coffee and pastries for each other and blankets to keep warm in the 12 degree weather. We got support from drivers passing by! In the afternoon, union members went in droves to the car caravan downtown! We were mobilized! We were energized! We knew Lori Lightfoot had backed herself into a corner with news coming out that she did not accept the state’s offer of SHIELD tests, vax clinics, and PPE along with the fact that our CEO Pedro Martinez was ready and willing to distribute devices for remote learning and she stopped him. It felt good knowing we were lifting each other up to fight for safety and point out some obviously questionable actions from the people in charge.

So, people want to know, what the hell happened? Well, for one, way too many people were walking through those school doors. As I was looking for parking during the teachout, I noticed that our school parking lot was at least half full. Our union members were going in. Some people stopped responding to our chat after the first day. They needed their paycheck, or they didn’t want to ruffle feathers, whatever their reason, they turned their back on us. This was happening everywhere. Since this wasn’t an official strike, people did not see the problem with going in. The problem is it completely undermined our action! Our leverage decreased with the growing amount of people who went in. Second, Mayor Lightfoot loves to play hardball, even when she is spouting nonsense. This was wearing down the leadership team, and it was very clear in the tenor of their webinars with us that they were getting exhausted. Still, as one colleague of mine put it, they are not allowed to be more exhausted than those of us who have to go into these buildings every day! 

CPS put out a counter proposal that had some arbitrary guidelines in place– they’d pass out more KN95 masks. They’d rely on school safety committees (an unpaid volunteer position that some schools don’t even have set up!) to determine whether a class or school should flip remote. This agreement was by and large a farce. The House of Delegates, however, voted to suspend our work action that very night while waiting for membership to vote on the agreement. In exhaustion and with a strong tone of defeat, everyone from Jesse Sharkey to Stacy Davis Gates to Jen Johnson heavily encouraged us to vote yes on the agreement. “It’s not what we deserve, but it’s better than what we had,” was the message. 

We were back in the schools the next day, students were back the day after that, and the agreement barely passed with a 55% approval rating. I consider this agreement to be a huge embarrassment for the union. I can’t name a single colleague or friend who voted for it. I believe it is going to be a big struggle to bring our members in for our next action, knowing how played we all felt.

When we walked into our buildings, we were greeted with a little more hand sanitizer and a few more masks. Student attendance has been abysmal, because parents are making the right decision to keep their students safe, when the people in power chose to forget them.

What are conditions like at school now?

I think there is just a collective sense of “Let’s get through this, somehow!” We were able to sign a lot more kids up for weekly testing, so I was happy to see that in action this past Friday. But aside from that, it’s back to normalizing hazardous conditions and trying to put on a happy face for the kids we are responsible for caring for and teaching. Business as usual.

There are terrible working conditions for teachers all over the country, unsafe reopening in places like NYC where over 1/3 of kids have been out of school, and tons of teachers are resigning or plan to resign. What do you see as a way forward in Chicago and, more broadly, for schools around the country?

That is THE question, isn’t it? We are well into The Great Resignation era, where workers across the country are refusing to work for poverty wages and in inhumane conditions. The pandemic revealed this dormant truth that our bosses DO NOT care if we live or die. The machine has to keep running, and we are cogs. Tons of articles have been written about the mass exodus of teachers — accelerated by what’s happened the past two years. I think there’s some truth in what some of my comrades have said — this mass exodus helps fuel the propaganda that public schools are failing. I believe our mayor wants our public schools to fail. We know this because of the money that the city holds hostage or uses to pay their debts that they can instead be using to give us resources, more counselors, more clinicians, more social workers, more devices for our kids on the south side. We know this with every attack on our union. 

It’s very easy for certain groups to point at schools right now and say, “this isn’t working! I wouldn’t send my kids here!” Those are the same groups that have been telling us to quit if we “don’t want to work,” but I digress. 

And teachers leaving the profession — I totally get it. I am all over these teacher groups –- several of them specifically dedicated to teachers pursuing other careers — and we are all exhausted. Demoralized. Straight up traumatized. It’s tough. But unfortunately, this exodus and failing-on-purpose plan makes schools ripe for privatization. With that privatization comes lack of union representation, low wages, overcrowded classrooms — the works. 

And that brings us back to the question: how the hell do we move forward from this? I’ve seen teachers wanting to opt out of the union after this action. That simply ain’t it. Our power is in numbers. Our power is in our numbers holding leadership accountable — the leadership of the city and of our own union as well. If our union isn’t as democratic as it should be, we have the power to change that! I don’t for a second believe we should “set aside our differences.” I think that saying is silly and I think our differences should be a big part of the conversation! But we do have unifying causes. We want to be treated humanely. We want to keep our students and ourselves safe. We want autonomy. And there’s no way we can do that alone.

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Left Voice

Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.

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