Issues & Insights

Chicago: A Case Study In Teachers Union Abuse Of Students

An old schoolroom. Today's schools leave out an important part of America's legacy: It's founding under Enlightenment ideals. Photo: Paul Brennan, CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have been closed for almost a year, leaving 355,000 students to rely on inferior remote learning, and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has no intention of returning to the classroom anytime soon.

On January 24, the day before thousands of CTU members were supposed to return to the classroom to prepare for in-person learning beginning on February 1, 71% of CTU members voted to continue remote learning instead of returning to the classroom for in-person learning.

According to CTU President Jesse Sharkey, “Our collective power is our greatest strength … and this vote cements our intention to continue to stand together in unity to land an agreement that protects educators, students and all of our CPS families.”

CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates added, “We need to frontload the needs of our Black and Brown children, because our district has failed them for far too long … CPS can’t continue failing Black and Brown children, and families, in a pandemic.”

Chicago’s schools aren’t failing their students. The Chicago Teachers Union is, by refusing to return to work and using a pandemic for political purposes.

Since remote learning began in March 2020, CPS students and their families have struggled across the board.

CPS attendance has dropped by nearly 15,000 students over the past year, with the largest drops occurring at schools with large minority populations. As a whole, attendance for black students is down 5% and 2.4% for Hispanic students. Attendance for homeless students is down 7.3% and 4.8% among students with special needs.

As CPS CEO Janice Jackson said, “This is the largest drop in enrollment that Chicago Public Schools has experienced in the past two decades.”

Even worse, under remote learning, the dreaded achievement gap between minorities and white students has widened.

According to CPS data, black and Hispanic students in elementary schools have experienced a major uptick in failing grades in math and reading compared to their white and Asian peers during the era of remote learning.

On the other end of the spectrum, black students’ A grades increased by three percentage points compared to 2019 while white students’ A grades increased by seven percentage points.

Referring to the troubling trend in the achievement gap under remote learning, Jackson said, “This is a matter of equity, and it’s at the core of everything that we do in Chicago Public Schools.”

Jackson is right, remote learning is casting a disproportionate impact on minority students, which is reason enough to return to in-person learning.

On top of the academic problems that remote learning has exacerbated, students are also suffering from increased depression and anxiety due to months of social isolation. Tragically, youth suicide has also skyrocketed during the pandemic.

Yet, this does not matter to CTU, who continue to use the pandemic as an excuse to not return to work.

While closing schools at the outset of the pandemic, when we knew very little about the coronavirus, was understandable, it defies science given what we now know about COVID-19.

First, children are practically immune to the coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 58 Americans aged 5 to 14 have died from COVID-19, as of January 21. 

Second, children are highly unlikely to transmit coronavirus. “The fear that you’d have one infected kid come to school, and then you’d have many other kids and teachers and relatives [at home] get infected—that hasn’t happened,” says Sallie Permar, professor of pediatrics and immunology at Duke University School of Medicine.

Third, most CTU employees are not over the age of 65, and therefore are unlikely to experience severe symptoms if they do contract coronavirus. Of course, CTU employees with co-morbidities and those particularly vulnerable to complications from COVID-19 could be given exemptions from returning to in-person learning until they are vaccinated.

For more than 10 months, 355,000 CPS students and their families have been unduly and unnecessarily suffering because CTU members refuse to return to work. 

There is no replacement for in-person learning. As a former public school teacher, I can attest that in-class learning is absolutely superior to distance learning in all aspects. CTU and its members know this fact, which is exactly why they should return to the classroom immediately.

Chris Talgo (ctalgo@heartland.org) is an editor and research fellow at The Heartland Institute.

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