Chicago Parents Stage a Student Sick-Out

With Chicago teachers deadlocked in a fight with mayor Lori Lightfoot over reopening schools, a group of public school parents and students staged a “sick-out” from online learning, protesting moves for a quick reopening.

Parents of Chicago public school students have staged a sick-out in support of the Chicago Teachers' Union and to ensure the safe reopening of in-person learning. (Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association / Flickr)

On Monday, February 1, some parents of Chicago public school students staged a sick-out. Using #CPSSICKOUT on social media, they acted in the hope that taking their children out of online learnings would raise awareness of their difficult position as the future of the city’s schools remains uncertain.

In the lead-up to Monday morning, the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) had been increasingly backed into a corner by the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) over the city’s reopening plan. CPS, led by the city’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, is determined to reopen schools, and had scheduled the reopening to begin Monday. But CTU says the plan is inadequate, and that many teachers won’t reenter facilities until the city addresses their health and safety concerns.

Last week, the distance between the sides raised the possibility of a strike. CTU’s House of Delegates voted to refuse to return to in-person work, and the overwhelming majority of the union’s membership agreed with the resolution. Lightfoot responded that such a refusal would be met with a lockout from online learning for teachers. Should that happen, CTU says they’ll have no choice but to strike. As Jesse Sharkey, the union’s president, put it, “only the mayor can force a strike, and if it comes to that, that’s her choice. We choose safety.”

The showdown was set to take place on Monday, which is what inspired the parents behind #CPSSICKOUT. The organizers of the action say they have spent untold hours in meetings about schooling, and that their concerns have fallen on deaf ears.

“I thought, fine, if CPS is not listening to the phone calls and emails, maybe this will catch their attention,” says Kate Jablonski, a Rogers Park resident and one of the parents who organized the sick-out.

While the organizers don’t know how many parents participated in the sick-out, they describe the response as “overwhelming.” In addition to hearing from parents across the city, the group was invited to attend a Zoom call with Mayor Lightfoot. The call featured some hundred people, from parents to community organizations to religious groups.

While the inclusion of parents on the call was a fig leaf, some of the parents say that the call itself did not go smoothly.

It was “very odd,” says Cortney R, a parent behind the sick-out who attended the Zoom meeting. She says that her co-organizer Joseph Williams tried to speak several times, and was muted by a member of Lightfoot’s staff.

Williams, who lives in Englewood and has five children in CPS, did eventually have the chance to speak. He says he told Lightfoot that parents “need a seat at the table,” and that the mayor insisted that she was trying to make that happen.

While some of the parents I spoke to say CTU could do a better job communicating with parents, they all emphasize that they stand with the teachers, and spoke of the Herculean effort their children’s instructors have made to educate their children under impossible conditions.

“I encourage everyone to stand in solidarity with the teachers, and I support their right to organize collectively, and to take strike action,” says Cortney. Asked what she’ll do if a strike breaks out, she says, “I’ll be joining the teachers in solidarity on the picket line.”

While only 19 percent of CPS students eligible for in-person learning have shown up to schools, another group of parents, calling themselves the Chicago Parents Collective, staged a rally on Sunday to demand school reopening. For some of the CPS Sick-Out organizers, this was another reason to make their voices heard: although the rally was in Humboldt Park, the CPS Sick-Out parents say that the collective’s members are based in tonier neighborhoods with less diverse schools, and don’t represent the average parent.

As to what they say about parents whose jobs prevent them from caring for their children during the day, making remote learning all but impossible, organizers spoke of the learning hubs currently operating in the city, and the need to add more. Currently, there are only sixteen such locations — with a limited number of students allowed in each facility, it’s a woefully inadequate capacity for a school district that has more than three hundred thousand students.

“We have these learning hubs, it’s just a matter of expanding the program,” says Jablonski.

Later on Monday, Lightfoot called a forty-eight-hour “cool-off” period between the two sides, pushing back the deadline for an agreement to be reached between CTU and CPS until later this week.

And what do the students themselves think about all of this organizing? Cortney laughs when I bring up the topic. She says that after hearing her interviewed on the phone all day, one of her five-year-old twins asked for help recording a message for CTU. So Cortney hit “record” on her phone, and her daughter said, “Hi CTU, I want to let you know that you need a teachers’ strike.”