Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and we're here with you. We begin by asking, is school safe? Now, it's a question we ask in the aftermath of deadly school shootings. It's a question we ask throughout much of 2020 as schools' teachers and caregivers tried to teach while battling a global pandemic of a deadly disease for which we had no cure and no vaccine. Last year brought hope for so many as safe effective free vaccines became available.
First for the teachers, then for the middle and high schools, and finally last year, for the youngest elementary school kids. Now, most of us thought we were going to be entering 2022 with students in seats and teachers in classrooms but when the highly contagious Omicron variant exploded into American towns and cities, sending infection rates to record heights, it changed everything. Here's what some of you told us about the disruption you are living with at this moment.
Caller: First, Staten Island, New York, it is a hot mess. Our school district is open. The new New York City mayor is adamantly opposed to shutting it down and my kid's been in school four days and already has his third exposure since school started.
Kira: Hi, this is Kira from St. John, Florida. Yes, our school is in person and there are no safety protocols for COVID right now. Masks are completely optional. There's no vaccine requirements. There's no social distancing as their schools are too overcrowded.
Caller 2: My children go to Byron Minnesota School. They are not mandated to wear masks. It's hard to ask your children to wear masks when other kids aren't expected to wear mask.
Bonnie: Hi, there. This is Bonnie. Parker, Colorado. Unfortunately, the school district I am a teacher in has pretty much no protections for us from COVID. Masking is not required. As long as students test negative, even if they've been directly exposed, they're allowed to come into school.
Lisa: Hi, this is Lisa from St. Louis. I'm a sixth-grade teacher in a large school district in St. Louis and 20% of our teachers at least are out right now. Bus drivers all called out today. I foresee some virtual action in our future.
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Melissa Harris-Perry: We're always so grateful to those of you who call in and share with us your stories at 877-8698-253. That is the way to do it. Now, clearly school disruptions are occurring across the country but in Chicago, the situation became particularly troubling last week. After two days of in-person learning, the Chicago Teachers Union voted last Tuesday to pivot to remote learning.
To the frustration of many parents, that decision wasn't announced until about 11 o'clock at night on Tuesday. Because the Chicago school district leaders want classes to remain in person this year, school was canceled altogether Wednesday through Friday of last week, and that left many parents in a bind.
Vanessa Chavez: This week has been extremely frustrating.
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Melissa Harris-Perry: Our producers spoke with Vanessa Chavez who has three children in Chicago Public Schools.
Vanessa Chavez: Having multiple kids at home when they've lived through this once before and want to be back in school. My kids are all vaccinated. We follow all the mitigation standards even outside of school and so we're frustrated. We're very, very frustrated.
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Melissa Harris-Perry: Vanessa said her frustration goes all the way back to the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2019.
Vanessa Chavez: I started looking at it and listening to all of the facts and all of the different viewpoints and trying to look at all sides of a story. I've slowly, over the years, have become more and more angry towards the Chicago Teachers Union. Whether it's political posturing or just wanting to pick a fight at all times. It's really frustrating to know that our kids and a whole generation of children are being held hostage and being held back.
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Melissa Harris-Perry: She doesn't think the school district is doing enough.
Vanessa Chavez: I think this is something that has been going on over the years and had they probably stood a little firmer in the past, maybe we wouldn't be at the point that we are now. I feel that the Chicago Teachers Union is essentially a bully to CPS families, even to their own members. When you don't put a stop to the bullying it just gets worse and worse and worse until somebody actually stands up to them.
I feel like a lot of parents in the Chicago area are now starting to realize that they're going to be the ones that are going to have to be the adult in this whole relationship, and actually stand up to the bully.
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Melissa Harris-Perry: Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has positioned herself in clear opposition to the Teachers Union decision to move to virtual learning. On Saturday afternoon, Mayor Lightfoot tweeted at the Chicago Teacher Union local writing, "You're not listening. The best safest place for kids to be is in school. Students need to be back in person as soon as possible and that's what parents want. That's what the science supports, we will not relent." But the Teachers Union describes the mayor's position as--
Stacy Davis Gates: Dangerous. It is incompetent. It is unconscionable. I don't know how you recover from knowing that your boss refused to implement mitigations that were offered to her by the governor. How do you reconcile something like that?
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Melissa Harris-Perry: That's Stacy Davis Gates, Vice President of the Chicago Teachers Union who spoke with The Takeaway on Friday. Gates was referring to a story that reporter Rich Miller broke last week indicating that the Illinois governor had offered the City of Chicago additional tests and masks to help the school system. That so far, the city which would actually have to pay for it has not accepted.
Asked to respond to parents like Vanessa Chavez who view the Union as a bully, Gates told The Takeaway she has some issues with how conversations about public schools often talk about parents and union members as though they're two entirely separate entities.
Stacy Davis Gates: I have a seventh-grader. I have a fifth-grader and I have a second-grader. Parents do not have the market corner on love and care for their children. In fact, the only reason why I sent my children back to school in August is because I trusted that the school community would keep them safe.
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Melissa Harris-Perry: Here's how one teacher told us he feels about the current messy situation.
Nick: Hey, this is Nick in Chicago. I'm a CPS teacher. The feeling that I get it's like I'm in the car and the parents are in the front seat arguing and fighting over where to go to dinner until finally someone blows up, lose their temper, and now we're not going anywhere and we're just driving in silence.
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Melissa Harris-Perry: Nader Issa is a reporter covering education for the Chicago Sun-Times. Welcome to The Takeaway, Nader.
Nader Issa: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Has there been progress over the course of the weekend in terms of discussions between the school district and the Teachers Union?
Nader Issa: They negotiated late into Sunday night. The mayor even held off on canceling classes for Monday in case there was enough progress in negotiations. The Teachers Union held a meeting with its 25,000 members but its Union leaders didn't actually go to the meeting because they were still at the negotiating table. All signs point to progress being made. It's always a good sign when they're negotiating into the ninth but obviously, there wasn't enough progress because schools were canceled again on Monday for the fourth consecutive school day.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What are the big sticking points at this moment?
Nader Issa: One is testing and two is this temporary return to remote learning for a few days. On testing, the Teachers Union had wanted every single student and staff member tested before they returned from winter break, they've since dropped that demand, they dropped it in their latest proposal made on Saturday. The remaining testing demand is for a switch to an opt-out program rather than opt-in. What that is a lot of districts around the country, around Illinois and the suburbs of Chicago have used this.
Basically, students would be defaulted into the testing program. Students are automatically enrolled, their parents are notified and they can opt-out if they want to. The way that the district has been doing it a school year is opt-in where no students are defaulted into testing and parents have to go in, fill out a form, give their affirmative consent, and register their students for testing.
At Chicago public schools and other districts has led to way lower participation rates among students. The district started out the school year with only about 3% of students registered. It's now up closer to 20% but nowhere near the number that the teachers want to be tested weekly or at least semi-regularly
Melissa Harris-Perry: That is actually the central insight of behavioral economics. We know this from the book Nudge that if you want mass participation you actually have to drop those barriers and often that opt-in process is, even if it's a small barrier, it's nonetheless a barrier.
I just want to be sure that I'm clear about one thing. Who is it that's being tested here? Are these students who are returning after being observed for potentially being exposed or is this just a regular process of testing over the course of the semester whether they're asymptomatic or not?
Nader Issa: There's two types of testing. One is if you're feeling sick, if you think you have COVID, you were exposed, you go get tested, that's tested all of us think about when we think of COVID testing. This other form of testing that we're talking about is called screening testing. It's asymptomatic testing, everyone who signs up just gets tested regularly. It's just to detect asymptomatic spread in the school district before people start feeling sick, maybe they start shedding virus. You test positive and you can get those people isolated so that they're not spreading to classmates or to teachers or whoever it may be.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering before this moment, what the relationship with the mayor has been like with the Teachers Union, particularly across the past year and a half of COVID and the great pivot, and all of that? Is this a relationship built basically on trust and mutual respect or has it been more intense?
Nader Issa: I would not say there has been trust or mutual respect in this relationship, and it's really dated back, you can say a decade. In the past 27 months, this is a third labor dispute. The teachers went on strike in 2019, and that was pre-pandemic, right before the pandemic. It was the fall of 2019. That was more about-- paying benefits were certainly on the table, but it was also about the teachers wanting more nurses in schools, more social workers, lower class sizes, the bread-and-butter education issues.
Then when the pandemic started, obviously there was remote learning, Mayor Lori Lightfoot wanted to get kids back into classrooms during the 2020-2021 school year. January 2021, this time last year, there was a big dispute around reopening negotiations. The mayor tried to reopen schools. The teachers voted, said, "No, we're teaching remotely." She locked them out. It was a very similar situation to what's happening right now.
Then, of course, right now Chicago doesn't have any type of classes, remote or in-person. Back in 2012, the teachers went on their first strike in 25 years here in Chicago, under Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The situation just hasn't improved. At the time, the Teachers Union started negotiating common good bargaining. They started negotiating about these wraparound issues. These support issues that affect students, affect working conditions that have nothing to do with pain benefits. This year and last year, it's about health and safety
Melissa Harris-Perry: In a recent [unintelligible 00:12:34] in this struggle, Chicago Tribune Reporter, Gregory Pratt tweeted on Sunday morning, "Another small note from City Hall as Mayor Lightfoot remains in a dispute with this CTU over CPS remote learning and reopening, her chief of staff quietly extended work from home for the Mayor's Office staff for at least another week".
Nader, I want to come to this point about the mayor's staff working remotely. I'm a teacher during the parts of the day when I'm not on the radio. I'm a college professor. I remember at the start of all of this, we were told, "Be ready to pivot at any moment. Not just in the next few weeks, but for the next several years." My big question is, why weren't the Chicago public schools ready to pivot if necessary?
I don't think teachers are saying at this point, they want to cancel this semester. They're talking about waiting out the surge, why isn't there a process in place for exactly what we expected to happen with this pandemic?
Nader Issa: I think that's the big question. The answer lies in this ideological argument that the mayor has been making. If you listen to any of her press conferences over the past week, really any press conferences over the past year, Mayor Lightfoot has been just adamantly opposed to remote learning. She says it's been a bad thing for students who are economically disadvantaged, who are Black and brown, all of which are the majority of Chicago Public School students.
She says mental health has had academic achievement and gaps of the widen-- It's an ideological argument, but if you listen to the teachers nobody's saying, "Hey, let's be out for two months or three months." They've set a date. They want to go back January 18th, next Tuesday after Martin Luther King Junior holiday, just to write out the search.
For some context, you mentioned the Omicron wave. Chicago right now is in the of a record wave. There's the most number of cases, hospitalizations, positivity rate, every metric is at or near a record high. It's really about writing out this wave, getting people tested so that they're not spreading COVID, or at least exposing others to COVID in schools. The response has been, "Remote learning is bad".
You ask any teacher-- I'm in touch with teachers, even principals, nobody wants to do remote learning. Nobody thinks it was fun. Nobody prefers to be in remote learning, but it's about being home. Apart from each other while there's a search. Just yesterday, the Chicago Public Health Commissioner, Dr. Allison already issued on a town hall, that was put together at the last minute with some parents. She said, if this was pro-vaccine days, Chicago schools would be remote right now.
She thinks that the fact that vaccine exists and is this other layer of protection makes it okay for schools to be open. I think one issue with that argument is that there was a report in Chalkbeat a couple of days ago. They secured through a public record search vaccine rates per school. There are some schools with just very, very, very low vaccine rates. Overall, younger students at Chicago public schools are about a fifth vaccinated, older student, 12 to 17 are about 60% vaccinated.
The vaccine does help. It's another layer. If you've seen that Swiss cheese model of each layer protecting from the virus and building on each other. It's another one of those Swiss cheese slices. It's the public health expert is saying it's enough. The anxiety among parents, students, and staff is enough right now that it's leading to what we're saying now.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Your point about this being ideological is an interesting one. On the one hand, the mayor's not being exclusively ideological. We did see important learning loss mental health questions as a result of the extended process of virtual learning. When you point to the low vaccination rates among young people in the schools, I suppose I'm wondering, is that driven by ideological and partisan concerns, or is it your sense that this is an access problem? I have to say those are really quite low numbers, particularly for the youngest students.
Nader Issa: I don't think it's about politics in Chicago. I think there are a lot of issues. One of them is mistrust. People maybe just don't trust the vaccine yet, or learning more as the vaccine, as time goes on. I think another issue is access. Now, there are some schools that have held vaccine clinics. The district overall throughout the city held a few hundred vaccine events since the fall and Chicago has even had incentives.
You can get a hundred-dollar Amazon gift card if you get vaccinated at a city site, but there are some communities where there's no place to get vaccinated within a mile of your home. It's a little bit of traveling. But in terms of kids, I think a lot of the issue is parents wanting to wait and see and the messaging might not be there even though the district's holding these vaccine events.
We see another district like LA, for example. They're holding vaccine events, but they also mandated the vaccine. That mandate doesn't kick in now until the fall they delayed it, but their vaccination rates are much, much, much higher the majority of students are vaccinated at this point. I think part of the issue may be messaging getting people that parents trust to explain to them the benefits of vaccine. At some point, maybe looking toward moving toward a mandate, just like more than a dozen other vaccines are mandated for Illinois students.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering the extent to which what we are seeing in Chicago and less hear about the [unintelligible 00:19:16] and more about the tensions between city leadership and the Union. Are you expecting to see these tensions flare-up over the course of this, what is undoubtedly going to be a tough winter in other cities, or will the challenges that are occurring in Chicago maybe incentivize city leaders and union leaders to come to solutions before we get to this closing school for many days point?
Nader Issa: I think the moves that the Chicago Teachers Union makes and has made over the past few years have definitely spread to other cities. If you look at reopening negotiations last year, the CTU was one of the first Teachers Unions to raise a big fight with its district over the learning conditions, the teaching conditions, the classroom conditions that the district was offering. You started to see other unions across the country, start to implement some of the same arguments, and pointing out failures or holes in district's plans.
I think we're already starting to see some of the same worries spread to other districts. You saw a couple of days ago, a group of Oakland students started a petition calling on the district to implement more testing to provide KN95 masks or else the students-- that they would go on strike. You've seen a few other districts with teachers unions raising some points. I don't think this exact acrimony will spread to other districts.
What we've seen when the Chicago Teachers Unions' points spread across the country to other unions, is there might be some fighting, but they're generally able to work out agreements. In Chicago, the relationship is just so bad between the Union and the Mayor's Office from Rahm Emanuel and now to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, that I don't think the trust is there. Their disagreement spread to other cities, but then those cities get deals and Chicago drags on its situation.
The other issue now is there's a mayoral election in about a year. The mayor has viewed the Chicago Teachers Union as an opponent since day one because they endorsed her opponent in the 2019 election. She's brought that up repeatedly and she's expecting them to run a candidate against her about a year from now, with campaigning starting toward the end of this year, and so, no, this relationship isn't getting better. There's no chance, I don't think, it gets better if it hasn't at this point.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Chicago, it is not a boring place to be an education reporter. Nader Issa is a reporter covering education for the Chicago Sun-Times. Thanks so much for joining us.
Nader Issa: Thanks for having me, Melissa.
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