Chicago begins return to classrooms after bitter 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 nearly a year wrestling with online school schedules for their six children, often with everyone hovered over devices around the dining room table.

Starting Thursday, they'll get relief. Their youngest daughter, 4-year-old Lear, returns 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.

Willie Preston, who runs a small construction firm with his wife, said there’s no place that can guarantee a coronavirus-free environment but he feels safe with the district’s steps: cleaned buildings, daily health screenings, new air filters and required masks.

“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.’’

In the next few weeks, four of his children will go back as part of the district's gradual reopening plans for pre-K-8. The Chicago Teachers Union accepted the plan after weeks of bitter talks that included defying district orders, threats from the city that they would be locked out of district teaching and a potential strike.

Under the deal, the city will set aside 1,500 vaccinations each week for teachers after an initial 2,000 doses for those who are returning first. There are also metrics allowing for schools to shut down when infections spike, for instance outbreaks in multiple classrooms over a short period. The agreement also makes plans for teachers who are at higher risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19 or take care of someone who is.

Preston’s two high school children will keep learning online at their home on the South Side. The district hasn’t rolled out a plan for high school students to return, which is expected to prompt more negotiations.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has argued for months that schools needed to reopen. She's said since going fully remote in March, online learning hasn't served many in the roughly 340,000-student district, particularly Black and Latino students who comprise the majority.