CTU members protested what they described as unsafe working conditions and demanded more nurses at CPS schools during the January work stoppage/lockout. Credit: Milwaukee Teacher's Educational Association

From the ebbs and flows of the pandemic, to chronic understaffing, to numerous public fights between their union and the district, school nurses in Chicago are frustrated, stretched thin, and desperate for a change. More than a month after teachers refused to work in-person for five days to try to force the school district to improve COVID protections at schools, nurses say they haven’t seen much improvement. 

Some, at a breaking point, are leaving the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) altogether. 

Even before the pandemic, relations between Mayor Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which includes school nurses, were strained. For all her campaign promises about an elected school board and more support staff in schools, Lightfoot has sparred combatively with the union. And the CTU, for its part, has been a thorn in Lightfoot’s side since endorsing Toni Preckwinkle in the mayoral election. A two-week strike in 2019, after Lightfoot had been in office just five months, dashed any hope of a collegial relationship.

After the 2019 strike, the CTU won a guarantee that every school would have a nurse, along with other demands. Three years later, the district has just 508 nurses serving more than 600 schools.The union said that promise has been much delayed and won’t be fulfilled until 2024, when the union’s collective bargaining agreement expires. Stacy Davis Gates, the vice president of CTU, said the union is making “sharp demands” to speed up the process of getting a nurse in every school. 

CPS claims the goal is within reach. Deputy chief talent officer Ben Felton said the district has made significant strides in recruitment, adding hundreds of nurses since 2019. In a separate statement to the Reader, CPS said the district had more than 250 since the pandemic began in March 2020, including more than 60 since the start of the current school year. But critics say it’s not nearly enough. 

“We have been beating the drum on the need[s] of our school communities for a very long time with particular attention to having nursing support and traumatic support within our school communities,” Davis Gates told the Reader.  “We’ve always needed that type of support, and the pandemic continues to exacerbate those same needs. Kids are back in our schools dealing with the emotional impact of COVID, a lockdown, the emotional impact of grief and family members who are ill and who have passed.”

While Felton acknowledged the very real struggle many nurses are facing amid the pandemic, he said, “We’re doing everything we can to support them from a district perspective.”

Safety concerns persist, and Sandra Beck, a CPS nurse who works in four south-side schools, said the mitigation measures in her own schools are lackluster, to say the least. 

“They’re always trying to find a cheaper way to do things. I don’t think they’re hiring enough personnel to keep these buildings clean,” Beck said, adding that she often wipes down her own workspace and finds it frequently uncleaned. 

Many nurses also said the pandemic exacerbated long-standing inequities in their schools. Dennis Kosuth, a CPS nurse who works at three large elementary schools in Rogers Park, West Ridge, and Avondale, said students in his schools don’t have KN95 masks, which are more effective at preventing the spread of Omicron than cloth or surgical masks. During class demonstrations about proper COVID-19 precautions, he said students ask for KN95 masks and he has none to give them. 

“It’s frustrating to me that you have these students that need this kind of equity and it’s not being given to them,” he said.

Erica McIntosh, a nurse and union delegate, broke down crying while describing inequities she has seen during her time with the district. In recalling her heavy workload, she spoke of having to triage students and decide whom to treat, and of having to walk parents and students themselves through their own medical care.

“I want a kid who’s rich and a kid who’s struggling to both get equity,” she said. McIntosh said she is leaving CPS after 18 years because of the escalating disputes between the district and union, which she feels are coming top-down from the mayor’s office “like that damn Reaganomics.”

McIntosh and Kosuth also criticized CPS attendance requirements that they say contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in communities and pose a particular risk for students who live in multigenerational households. They noted that students are facing the same challenges as adults during the pandemic, like losing family members or dealing with illness.

But now, after another public fight between the mayor and CTU, many Chicago public school nurses say they are having to juggle managing COVID-19 protocols and testing in their schools along with their typical duties, which are themselves often overwhelming. 

And many say the public, contentious nature of the fight has also tanked morale, especially for workers on the front lines of COVID-19 in schools. One nurse even penned an op-ed blasting the union and what they say was a political, not practical, fight between the CTU and CPS.

Beck, who supports Mary Esposito-Usterbowski, a candidate for CTU President on a slate advanced by the Members First Caucus, said the union should have pushed for better mitigation measures earlier, instead of over winter break. Last week, the Sun-Times and WBEZ linked Members First to Lisa Schneider Fabes, a former top adviser to Lightfoot.

“I think CTU, knowing who our management is and that CPS does nothing until the last minute, should have not gone back to school without a signed, sealed, and delivered safety agreement,” Beck said. “CTU should have been more diligent about that safety agreement—instead they waited till Christmas break during a surge of Omicron.”

Supporters of current CTU leadership such as Kosuth place the blame for a missing safety agreement squarely with CPS leadership. 

The bulk of the complaints from nurses who spoke to the Reader center on a debilitating workload, and pandemic-related duties that make their day-to-day work almost impossible. Many nurses, exhaustion palpable in their voices, described having to triage care between sometimes as many as six separate schools while also juggling testing, keeping track of the virus in their schools, and quarantine protocols. 

“Most of my job is paperwork, even though it’s supposed to be managing health and teaching students how to manage their own health,” Kosuth said. 

One CPS nurse who has been with the school district since 2013, and who asked to remain anonymous, said she goes home exhausted every night, a pattern she said is taking a toll on her physical and mental health.

“I’ve gotten to a point where if it’s not an immediate emergency, I can’t deal with it,” she said.

She said her doctor recently told her to consider changing jobs, and that she is currently searching for a therapist because she keeps breaking down emotionally at work from the stress. She said she often has to take work home with her, another challenge with two small children and a husband she feels guilty for venting to every night.

“I don’t know how much more as a person I can handle.”

MAGA science

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…

Adam M. Rhodes

Adam M. Rhodes is a queer, nonbinary, first-generation Cuban American journalist. Rhodes is currently a social justice reporter at the Chicago Reader, where their work centers primarily on queer people and people of color. Their recent work has examined HIV treatment access in Puerto Rico, racism in Chicago’s principal queer neighborhood, and, most recently, HIV criminalization in Illinois. Alongside the Reader, Rhodes has been published in outlets including BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post. You can follow them on Twitter at @byadamrhodes.