Two mothers with children at the same Chicago Public Schools site have died of COVID-19 after 11 of 17 of the classrooms at Jensen Elementary School were in quarantine due to reported cases of the virus, according to the Chicago Teachers Union.
“Both mothers had children sent home from quarantined Jensen classrooms,” the union wrote on its website Tuesday. “One mother complained bitterly on social media that she was never contacted by a contact tracer. Within a week she was dead.” Shenitha “Angel” Curry died last week, just before her 44th birthday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. On a GoFundMe page, her sister Jasyma Johnson blamed the district for Curry’s death.
Johnson wrote that when Chicago Public Schools reopened last month, her sister, who was unvaccinated, had no choice but to send her daughter back to school. Although the district claims on its website that “families can choose whether they want their child to go to school a few days a week or continue learning at home,” in actuality, students had to meet stringent criteria to opt out of in-person learning.
“My sister Shenitha Curry was extremely afraid of Covid-19 and didn’t leave the house nor did she want her kids leaving the house to go school. However, CPS mandated children return to school for 2021-2022 academic school year. She was faced with no choice, but to send them back even though she has health conditions. Jensen Academy/CPS failed to administer health screenings, temperature checks, spit test, proper contact tracing, proper social distancing, proper deep cleaning of exposed areas of buildings, proper ventilation & filtering HVAC, decreased class sizes, full-time nurse, etc. to protect teachers, students, staff, and most of all the families of the students who were at home. Her daughter brought Covid-19 home when they told her not to return to school until 9/27/2021; yet still today, no contact tracer has called my sister’s phone and she is now dead. Her three children are faced with burying her because they were forced to go to school. This could have all been avoided if proper safety protocols and/or given the option to send your child back to school were in place as they are in suburbia educational districts!”
The teachers’ union wrote in its post:
“Last school year, under the CTU’s safety agreement with CPS, members of the school community were tested weekly. This year, Tuesday will be the first day that COVID testing will be offered at the school, despite the fact that the school and the disadvantaged surrounding neighborhood have one of the lowest vaccine rates in the city.
The CTU is demanding an enforceable safety agreement with CPS that provides for weekly universal testing, contact tracing turn-arounds of 24 hours, robust school-based vaccination programs, and adequate staffing to support the needs of student traumatized by the harsh consequences of the pandemic, an epidemic of violence in the city, and the struggles of neighborhoods starved of civic resources for decades. The mayor’s CPS team has instead insisted on rolling back 75% of the safety guardrails the Union won last spring, including COVID testing, social distancing, contact tracing, ventilation inspections and standards, and a basic metric to determine when there was too much COVID in a school to safely remain open to in-person learning.
The Acero charter network closed its Zizumbo campus to unvaccinated students after three COVID cases surfaced in the school. By last week, Jensen had identified 8 COVID cases through self-reporting, but CPS has continued to refuse to put in-person learning on pause even as it’s been forced to admit its contact tracing program is severely understaffed. Jensen has no full-time nurse or janitor. The school nurse also covers two other schools, and the school janitor is responsible for cleaning one other school besides Jensen.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten joined union leaders on Wednesday in again advocating for added measures to protect students, teachers, and the overall school community. “The money is there,” Weingarten said outside of Englewood STEM High School on Chicago’s South Side. “You see the motivation is there. What’s not there is an administration that wants to work with the teachers and the students to get this done.”
Following months of virtual learning resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been on a crusade to rush students and teachers back to school for months now, against the urgings of the teachers union. Its leaders have repeatedly expressed concerns over the health of teachers and staff members, specifically at schools that have for decades gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to resources, like those on Chicago’s South and West sides.
“Those teachers need to be there” for students, Lightfoot said back in January when negotiations with the union were failing to net an agreement leading to schools safely reopening. The mayor issued the vague threat then that if teachers weren’t there for students, “we will take further action.” As someone who comes from a long line of educators in Chicago Public Schools and graduated from a high school in the district, it’s hard for me to believe the issue of reopening schools was simply a matter of teachers not wanting to be there for their students. The mere suggestion was offensive.
Union leaders wrote to parents in an open letter the Chicago Sun-Times obtained in February:
“We love your children. We desperately want to be back in classrooms with them, but we are not willing to accept the inevitable illness and death a reckless reopening will inflict on our city.”
Chicago schools fully reopened in August, more than a month before a city requirement that all city employees be vaccinated was set to go into effect. That policy goes into effect on Oct. 15, according to a news release from the mayor’s office. “As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, we must take every step necessary and at our disposal to keep everyone in our city safe and healthy,” Lightfoot said in a news release. “Getting vaccinated has been proven to be the best way to achieve that and make it possible to recover from this devastating pandemic. And so, we have decided to join other municipalities and government agencies across the nation, including the U.S. military, who are making this decision to protect the people who are keeping our cities and country moving. We have also been in close communication with our partners in the labor movement to create a vaccination policy that is workable, fair and effective.”
It’s unclear why school reopening plans haven’t been more closely tied to a vaccination policy or an increase in vaccination rates in the most at-risk communities. Less than half of people in Black and Latino communities in Chicago are vaccinated, the nonprofit news site Block Club Chicago reported based on public health data. “In most parts of Belmont Cragin (which has a population that is more than 80% Hispanic), the vaccination rates are close to the citywide average of 56 percent, city data shows. But in the 60644 ZIP code, which covers roughly the southern half of Austin, just 38 percent of residents are fully vaccinated,” journalist Pascal Sabino wrote. “In Austin’s second-largest ZIP code, 60651, under 48 percent of residents are vaccinated.” The city’s Austin community has a population that is more than 75% Black, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
East Garfield Park, the neighborhood that Jensen Elementary is located in, has a population that is nearly 90% Black, and 55% of the population has received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccination, according to an ABC 7 Chicago tracker. Just less than 50% of the community received both doses.
Chicago Teachers Union recording secretary Christel Williams Hayes said during a news conference with other union leaders that she’s from the West Side of Chicago and she knows it has long received fewer resources than other areas of the city. “I know what we’re dealing with over here,” she said, demanding the mayor “step it up over here.”
“We have to understand there are grandparents that are raising children in this community that could be contracting this virus and nobody’s taking this serious,” Hayes said. “We need the mayor to pay attention.”
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