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Mayor Lightfoot Pushes for In-person Learning As Chicago's COVID-19 Cases Continue to Rise

Mayor Lightfoot Pushes for In-person Learning As Chicago’s COVID-19 Cases Continue to Rise

Lori Lightfoot is only further revealing her own anti-Blackness through her willingness to harm marginalized students and educators by pushing for in-person learning during a deadly pandemic. 

By Gloria Oladipo

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is once again screwing over Black and Brown communities in Chicago, this time with the help of President Joe Biden. Big surprise. In accordance with the Center for Disease Control and the Biden administration, Lightfoot is demanding that Chicago Public Schools reopen for in-person learning despite rising COVID-19 cases across the country. While she and other city officials have positioned this decision as critical for minority students who are reportedly “falling behind” (as if lower performance standards shouldn’t be expected in a traumatizing pandemic), Lightfoot is only further revealing her own anti-Blackness through her willingness to harm marginalized students and educators. 

This isn’t Lightfoot’s first time trying to force in-person learning during the global pandemic. Lightfoot has been attempting to restart in-person education since August, despite teachers, students, and parents raising their concerns about COVID-19 transmission. Her attempts in August failed after the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) threatened to strike (though Lightfoot cited a rise in COVID cases behind the changed decision). Now, even as Chicago Covid cases remain high and with a new variant of COVID-19 on the horizon, Lightfoot and Chicago city health officials have positioned reopening schools as necessary and safe. 

Throughout negotiations, CPS teachers have made it clear that they’re also interested in returning to the classroom, but only when it’s truly safe to do so. Chicago’s COVID-19 positivity rate sits at 5.6%, while some of Chicago’s most vulnerable neighborhoods have positivity rates above 10%, with Chicago’s 60632 area which includes neighborhoods such as Brighton Park and Archer Heights have a positivity rate of 12.3%. Teachers, especially those working in high-risk areas, risk getting infected with in-person learning. Moreover, despite claims from Lightfoot that the city has a “very robust vaccination plan”, Chicago’s vaccination rollout has been shaky at best with early statistics showing that vaccines are mainly going to white people and those who live in more affluent areas of the city. Not to mention, while simultaneously reassuring teachers that they will receive the vaccine, many have been unable to. Recently, the Chicago health department rescinded vaccine appointments for some teachers (those granted spots were apparently meant for healthcare workers) and publicly asserted that a vaccine isn’t “necessary” to return to the classroom. 

In the face of teachers’ concerns around the lack of vaccines, personal protective equipment for teachers already in classrooms, proper ventilation and air purification in schools, and other safeguards, Lightfoot remains hostile. Having since backtracked, Lightfoot previously threatened to lockout teachers from online learning tools if they refused to teach in-person. The city has also denied many teacher’s requests to work remotely, despite living in immunocompromised households. This bullying from Lightfoot is exceedingly incredulous given the increasingly tough spot teachers are in. In addition to any future strike the CTU participates in being “illegal”, a chorus of parents (mostly from Chicago’s most privileged communities) have threatened to sue teachers if they strike, buying into the made-up narrative that teachers are being unreasonably difficult for refusing in-person learning. 

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Lightfoot and other Chicago officials continue to put the most vulnerable at risk under the guise of promoting equity. To justify her decision, Lightfoot has routinely cited the importance of schools as a “safe place” where “children get a warm meal.” She has also continued to argue that all students, but especially those with limited resources, are “falling behind.” But reopening schools while COVID safety concerns remain shows a woeful apathy for Black and Brown educators, students, and parents. 

For one thing, Lightfoot, city officials, and the Biden administration have not truly acknowledged the legitimate safety concerns teachers face. Nationally, a number of teachers have died from COVID; in Chicago, at least two teachers have died from COVID. In the face of these huge health risks, only 37% of students eligible to learn in-person are set to return if schools reopen. Teachers, particularly Black and Brown ones who have a higher chance of dying from COVID in Chicago, are expected to endanger their health and the health of their households to service with no complaint when less than half of the student population will be attending. 

There are also vast disparities in which demographics of students are returning. According to data reported by WBEZ Chicago, even though CPS is a district made up of mostly Black and Brown students, white students are overrepresented among those set to come back. Reportedly, schools hosting mainly students of color are anticipating significantly lower enrollment rates; for example, three elementary schools, all located in communities of color, are expecting an enrollment rate of less than 10%. Only 37% of the district’s 156,000 low income students are predicted to return. 

Not to mention, COVID-19 infecting students is still a real issue that city officials have downplayed. While school-age children make up a small percentage of coronavirus cases, students can still transmit COVID to older family members at home. This is especially true for minority students who are statistically more likely to live in multigenerational households that contain older residents. For children who have contracted COVID and passed, as reported in September by NPR, 78% have been children of color. 

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Lightfoot has demanded schools open as a political move to appease privileged parents and, in general, privileged communities. Though claiming to put minority teachers, students and their loved ones first, opening schools at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic with poor safeguards disregards that mission. In a world where CPS schools reopen, Black and Brown populations will always be neglected. Teachers of color who are more vulnerable to catching and dying from COVID will be expected to teach despite such dangerous conditions. Students of color either show up to school where they too face a heightened risk of passing COVID-19 onto family members (or getting sick themselves) or are shortchanged in remote learning as their white peers take full advantage of opened classrooms, with the added possibility of traumatically watching their teachers get sick and die from COVID. No matter how it’s discussed, in-person teaching only furthers the educational inequality and risks harming educators and their pupils. 

Mayor Lightfoot could use her power to legitimately aid students, teachers, and their families struggling in the pandemic. She could plug more resources into teachers who are dealing with burnout and difficulties executing online lesson plans. She could meaningfully address tech access concerns that have been exacerbated by digital learning (approximately 1 in 5 Chicago children lack Internet access). She could help tackle students’ mental health issues given the enormous toll online learning has taken on them. Instead, she chooses to engage in political theatre around valid critiques about returning to in-person learning, once again positioning scared, overworked teachers as the villains. Teachers fearing harm in a pandemic aren’t the enemy and Black and Brown students shouldn’t be used as coverage for anti-Black decision making. Lightfoot needs to legitimately listen to teachers voicing safety concerns and invest in students of color without endangering them. 

Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman who is a senior at Cornell University and a permanent resident of Chicago, IL. She enjoys reading and writing on all things race, gender, mental health, and more. You can email her at gaoladipo@gmail.com, follow her on Instagram at @glorels, or on Twitter at @gaoladipo.

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