CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Mayor Lightfoot and Chicago Public School officials say in-person learning will start for thousands of pre-k and special education cluster students Monday despite health concerns raised by the teachers union.
"These past several months, really this past year, has tested our city in unimaginable ways. It has completely upended our sense of normalcy, our sense of who we are, the predictability about what our lives will be from day to day. But it has also created an opportunity for us to come together and find sustainable solutions to the challenges that we face, that we have not faced for decades, but are now front and center, that the pandemic has exposed," Mayor Lightfoot said.
"Opportunity to set a new course for who we are as a city, to write past wrongs, not ignore them as too tough, too intractable, too big for us to take on. One of these challenges has been finding a way to ensure every single child in our city, our city's heart and soul, has what they need to be able to survive in a vibrant, safe and nurturing environment, and do that while advancing their educational rights. And I say rights, because that is what I believe. Education is absolutely the great equalizer."
Mayor Lightfoot said CPS has worked diligently to provide the best possible remote learning experience and allow children to continue their studies even in the midsts of a pandemic.
"The fact of the matter is, however, that it is not sustainable, not over the long term, because it does not serve every student equally. Especially those students who are younger, who require additional help and supports, or simply don't have access to a sustainable learning environment, for whatever their circumstances are," she said.
The Mayor urges people who care about this, especially elected officials, to actually go into schools. You need to be able to make your own assessments.
"You will show support for the workers in these schools who have there all year making sure those buildings are safe and operational...It will give you the opportunity to see firsthand...what work has been done by people who have made a lot of effort and gone the extra mile to make sure those buildings — that have been open, by the way, since last March, all summer long, all fall long to make them safe and welcoming for our teachers, our staff and, importantly, for our students," Lightfoot said.
Also, they should see what's happening on remote learning. The Mayor said she attended "several" sessions.
"In some instances, it works quite well; but in many others, it does not. The challenge of trying to get some of our youngest learners to master Zoom or the other platforms, to be able to mute or unmute themselves, to be able to actually engage as a class in remote learning, are profound, magnified when it comes to our diverse learners. Remote learning works for some — who have a lot of support...It does not work absent that kind of support and environment."
The Mayor stressed that it is an "option" for parents to have their children return to in-person learning, and that 77,000 of parents have said they want to their children back in classrooms.
"We have an obligation to support that selection, that choice. And we have and we will," she said.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson said of that, 6,000 pre-kindergarten and special education cluster students are to return on Monday.
It's unclear how many teachers will show up for work, but those who don't will not be paid. Dr. Jackson said about 60 percent of teachers showed up this week, who had been told to return to work in-person. Jackson believes "a small portion of staff" will not show up on Monday.
"Those individuals will be deemed absent without leave and they will not be eligible for pay going forward," she said.
When asked if those teachers would be fired, Mayor Lightfoot tried to turn down the temperature with the teachers union.
"Let’s not race to the bottom, okay?” Lightfoot said.
The mayor said the school system does not need to reach an agreement with the CTU in order to return to in-person instruction, but she said CPS wants to work with the teacher's union. She said there have been "good faith efforts to engage with the CTU leadership---51 formal meetings and counting."
The mayor said more is known about the coronavirus and how to deal with it now, and that the system is meeting and exceeding standards for COVID-19 safety as best as possible.
"I know some are concerned about resuming. It’s a very challenging time. We need to forge forward with the knowledge that we’ve gained over a year," she said.
"We are doing everything that we can to place safety in this pandemic at the front and center of what we are doing."
Dr. Jackson agrees with the mayor and said Monday will be a huge day for CPS.
"For first time since March of last year, we will be reopening our doors to students and we could not be happier," Jackson said.
King Academy of Social Justice principal Jasmine Thurmond is ready to see students returning.
"While I might not be able to hug them when they return, I am so looking forward to hearing their voices and laughter in my building again," she said.
Mayor Lightfoot said it’s absolutely essential that students return to in-person instruction.
Parent Sarah Sachen has three children in the public school system and said she can't wait to see her children's eyes light up on their first day back in the classroom. She said her junior in high school has done well with remote learning, but her 2nd and 5th graders have been struggling.