image of empty classroom for column on CPS and chicago teachers union
My take: the Chicago Teachers Union embarrassed the mayor by revealing how inadequate COVID safety standards were. Credit: Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash

Having spent the better part of the last week closely following the showdown between CPS and its teachers, I’ve concluded there’s no way Mayor Lightfoot truly believes the positions she’s been taking.

Not unless the mayor—who ran as a progressive—has suddenly transformed into a Chicago version of Ron DeSantis, ’cause the stuff she’s been spouting is straight-up MAGA.

No, I say what’s happened is that the Chicago Teachers Union embarrassed the mayor by revealing how inadequate school safety standards were. And rather than correct the standards, the mayor said whatever she had to say—dragging her hapless health commissioner along for the ride—to justify negligence that’s unjustifiable.

Hey, I’m trying to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Before I dig deeper, a few basic points about the impasse that ended with an agreement Monday night . . .

Yes, this current COVID crisis is not the existential threat of the first one—at least for the vaccinated. Though who knows what the next strain will be like.

And no one I know says we should shut down the schools to fight it. On the contrary, pretty much everyone recognizes children are better off in a classroom with real teachers.

That said, there are some basic precautions any school system must take to protect the people in its school buildings.

And the notion that Chicago’s teachers initiated this fight because they want to permanently return to remote learning is a contrivance that Mayor Lightfoot cleverly created to divert attention from the inability of her school appointees—either through incompetence or negligence—to take the most basic of precautions to protect students, staff, and their families from a still potentially deadly disease.

How inadequate were the safety precautions? Well, let’s contrast Chicago’s COVID safeguards with those in Evanston, a thing I know thanks to assistance from a few friends who live there. (Much appreciation, V-Train and Jeanne.)

In elementary and middle schools, Evanston’s students are greeted at the door by a staffer who takes their temperature.

If the students don’t have their masks, the staffer at the door gives them one. And if during the day, students lose their masks—as kids often do—there’s a ready supply of masks throughout the building, including in the classrooms.  

There’s weekly testing. If parents don’t opt out of testing, their children will routinely be tested.

And Evanston’s elementary school district puts the policy in writing, sending a letter to parents that says: “By sending a child to school without opting out of the testing program in writing, parents/guardians are consenting to their child to be tested for COVID-19.”

Chicago, in contrast, well . . .

There are no temperature-takers at the entrances. And most schools don’t have a supply of masks anywhere in the building—unless a teacher buys them. 

During last week’s negotiations, Pedro Martinez, the CEO of CPS, said he would make sure masks were delivered to schools if teachers returned to the classroom.

Think about that. Providing masks to students in the middle of a pandemic should not be a concession the mayor is forced to make in collective-bargaining negotiations with the teachers union. It should be an automatic that she demands from the start of the year.

It was a similar thing in 2019—Mayor Lightfoot only pledged to provide more school nurses after the teachers went on strike. Why does it take teachers shutting down the system—and, in this case, giving up pay—before the mayor and her appointees do the right thing?

As for COVID testing, Lightfoot’s adopted a stance that’s straight out of the anti-vaxxer playbook. She opposes routine testing—like Evanston has—on the grounds that it’s “morally repugnant” and it will “rob” parents of control over their children’s health care.

Instead, she has ordered CPS to only test students whose parents have “opted in” to testing. What’s next, madam mayor—are you going to prevent school nurses from taking a kid’s temperature without a parental permission slip?

I have a hard time believing the mayor actually believes this bullshit, no matter how many times she repeats it.

For one thing, it goes against everything doctors, mayors, and health officials outside of, say, Florida and Texas, have been preaching for the last two years. That is—there’s nothing frightening or intrusive or sinister about such essential COVID safety measures as testing, vaccines, and masks. 

And now here comes Mayor Lightfoot, calling testing “morally repugnant”? As though parents have reason to think it’s part of some devious plot, hatched by sinister forces.

Moreover, Lightfoot’s position on testing contradicts the position she’s taken in another COVID-related matter—her ultimatum that city workers must tell the city if they’re vaccinated. The Fraternal Order of Police thinks that mandate is, well, morally repugnant, and they’ve gone to court to block it. So, is Lightfoot ready to concede that John Catanzara—head of the local police union—is correct that the mandate violates their sacred liberties? If it means beating the teachers union, anything’s possible.

Finally, a few words about Dr. Allison Arwady, the health commissioner. For the last few days, she’s been saying it’s safe to go to schools, even without proper safety standards, because, really, the Omicron strain is not that big a deal. No worse than the flu. 

It reminds me of arguments I heard on Joe Rogan’s podcast in the early days of the pandemic. They go like this . . .

Yeah, COVID kills people. But the people it kills are old people with crappy immune systems who are probably gonna die soon anyway. For the rest of us, it’s no worse than the flu. So, fuck it, man—rock on!

I always felt this was a heartless position to take. Especially with medical workers breaking down from the strain of treating so many COVID patients during the surges.

Coincidentally, on Monday, just before the impasse ended, the Sun-Times ran a gut-wrenching column by Neil Steinberg about exhausted nurses and doctors in the overcrowded emergency room at Roseland Community Hospital in a low-income Black neighborhood on the city’s south side.

The hospital covers some of the same neighborhoods as schools without adequate safeguards to prevent the further spread of COVID. Which, of course, results in even more patients filling those beds.

Yet the health commissioner says—no need to worry, it’s like the flu.

You’d think the health commissioner would have a little more empathy for her exhausted colleagues on the front lines at hospitals like Roseland.

But you know how it goes in Chicago—when it comes to a fight with CTU, a mayoral appointee’s first allegiance remains with the Boss.

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