Chicago: Students and Teachers Protest the State’s Failed Response to Pandemic

Photo credit: @oso_campeon on Twitter

By Michael Nolan

High school students from Chicago Public Schools (CPS) walked out January 14 in protest of the city’s failed handling of student and teacher safety during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Anger at Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has actively retaliated against unionized teachers and ignored student concerns, was central as the crowd marched in the streets and gathered at CPS headquarters. The walkout was organized by the student-led organization Chi-RADS a few days after schools re-opened, and follows a brief strike by the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) organized around demands similar to the students.

On January 4, as confirmed positive COVID-19 cases were at an all time high and continuing to rise in Chicago, unionized teachers voted 74% in favor to suspend in-person classes until cases substantially subsided or until Lightfoot offered a safety plan that was approved by the CTU membership. Lightfoot retaliated against teachers the next day by locking them out of their on-line teaching platform and threatening to deduct pay from teachers who abide by the union vote.

After a week of schools being shut due to the strike, Lightfoot gave only the most mild concession: school-by-school thresholds for how many illnesses would trigger a school closure. CTU narrowly accepted this new safety agreement on January 12, and students returned to the classroom the same day.

A union teacher told Tribune of the People that teachers went with four days of unpaid work, which is “a huge sacrifice to ensure that there was safety and what we got is as far as we could push [Lightfoot], but it’s not what we deserve.”

Within a few days, students organized their own district wide walkout with overlapping demands and the support of many teachers.

Between 300 and 500 students marched through the streets on January 14, chanting “Fuck Lori Lightfoot!” and, in response to the heavy police presence, “Fuck 12!” Police, including bicycle patrol and a helicopter, attempted to control the march as protesters briefly held the prominent intersection of Madison St. and State St in front of CPS headquarters. Workers from the Target and Walgreens along the march route came out to cheer and wave.

In front of CPS headquarters, students representing Chi-RADS gave speeches, highlighting their detailed demands for safety measures including high-quality personal protective equipment and COVID testing, and also for material support for students who come predominantly from Black, Brown and working class families disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Protesters also noted that Lightfoot allocated $280 million of the city’s federal discretionary funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) act, 60% of the total, to the Chicago Police Department, while none of those discretionary funds went to schools.

A union teacher at the march told Tribune, “This inspires me and gives me hope. I hope that the mayor takes the students of these school seriously. They are organized, they have demands, they have proposals.”

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