By Elyssa Cherney Chicago Tribune | Dec 29, 2020 at 3:53 PM

About 7,000 teachers and staff are due to report to Chicago Public Schools buildings on Monday, but the district has denied accommodations or leave to the majority of educators who applied — particularly those who said a household member is vulnerable to COVID-19.

In a news release issued Tuesday, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said the district will provide weekly COVID-19 testing for those who live with high-risk household members and is working to provide exemptions to employees who serve as primary caregivers for individuals with a medical condition.

“Health and safety are the district’s highest priorities and accommodations for remote work have been granted to all teachers and staff who have documented medical conditions as defined by the CDC,” the statement says. “Where possible, accommodations were also granted to staff who live with someone with a high-risk medical condition, or who face child care challenges.”

But a lawyer for the Chicago Teachers Union, which has repeatedly criticized the district’s reopening plan and threatened “collective action,” said the numbers show that educators are being forced to choose between their safety and livelihood and that many cannot afford to sacrifice their jobs. Most of those permitted to take leave are doing so without pay, CTU Deputy General Counsel Thad Goodchild said.

“CPS has denied about 60% of the leave and accommodations requests of our members to which they responded, even as CPS has a back-load of hundreds of requests to which they’ve failed to respond,” he said in a written statement.

If the district’s plan proceeds, teachers and staff in pre-kindergarten and some special education cluster programs will begin work in school buildings Jan. 4 and students opting in to in-person classes will start attending Jan. 11.

A classroom sits empty at King Elementary on Sept. 8, 2020, the first date of the academic year for Chicago Public Schools.
A classroom sits empty at King Elementary on Sept. 8, 2020, the first date of the academic year for Chicago Public Schools. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

About two-thirds of all pre-kindergarten and special education employees asked to return to schools Monday did not request accommodations or leave, according to district data released Tuesday. Of the approximately 2,000 employees who applied for exemptions, 57% were denied accommodation or leave and 4% have requests pending.

Everyone with an underlying medical condition was approved, for a total of 527 employees, the data shows. Fewer than 19% of requests were granted due to a household member’s medical condition and only 11.5% were approved due to child care challenges.

The union contends those called back to school buildings “have the right to decline unsafe work,” according to its website. On Twitter, CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates questioned the district’s process for evaluating accommodation requests.

“The survey simply provided no option for those of us that have *no condition* and don’t feel safe….we had no choice but to say we can return,” her tweet says.

The next big group of employees, those serving kindergarten through eighth grade, are due back Jan. 25, with those students set to begin a hybrid of in-person and remote learning on Feb. 1.

The data shared by CPS Tuesday pertains only to the first batch of employees returning next week. The initial information did not distinguish those living with a vulnerable household member from those who serve as the primary caregiver.

CPS says it is working to prioritize accommodations for primary caregivers and expects to approve requests in the “vast majority” of cases but can’t guarantee it for everyone.

The district is still reviewing requests for teachers and staff in kindergarten through eighth grade.

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