Chicago schools reopen doors after tough union fight

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Lear Preston, 4, who attends Scott Joplin Elementary School, participates in her virtual classes as her mother, Brittany Preston, background, assists at their residence in Chicago's South Side, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. Starting Thursday, Lear will return to class as the nation's third-largest school district slowly reopens its doors following a bitter fight with the teachers union over COVID-19 safety protocols. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar)

CHICAGO – Chicago parents Willie and Brittany Preston have spent almost a year wrestling with online school schedules for their six children, often with everyone hovering over devices around the dining room table.

On Thursday, they got some relief. Their youngest daughter, 4-year-old Lear, returned to class with thousands of others in pre-K and special education as the nation’s third-largest school district slowly reopened its doors following a bitter fight with the teachers union over COVID-19 protocols.

Willie Preston, who runs a construction firm with his wife, said nowhere can guarantee a coronavirus-free environment but he feels safe with the district’s steps: cleaned buildings, daily health screenings and new air filters.

“We just are not trained educators and we recognize our limitations,” he said. “For me as a parent, it makes me feel like we’re beating COVID and we’re going to get our lives back. And that’s good.’’

Three more of his children will return in the coming weeks as part of the district's gradual reopening for pre-K-8. The Chicago Teachers Union accepted the plan after defying district orders, city threats to lock them out of teaching systems, and talk of a potential strike.

Under the deal, Chicago will set aside 1,500 vaccinations weekly for teachers on top of 2,000 doses available this week through a partnership with Walgreens. Several educators lined up Thursday for vaccinations at a high school on Chicago's northwest side. There are also metrics allowing for schools to shut down when infections spike, for instance outbreaks in multiple classrooms over a short period.

Preston’s two high school children will keep learning online at their South Side home. The district hasn’t rolled out a plan for high school students' return.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot insisted that schools reopen, an argument that's played out nationwide as cities grapple with infections. She said online learning hasn't served many in the roughly 340,000-student district, particularly many Black and Hispanic students who comprise the majority. The district went fully remote last March.