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After a deal on COVID safety, Chicago public schools open for in-person classes

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Biden administration says it's going to send out an additional 10 million COVID tests for schools each month, which they need. If anybody in your family is going to school, you know there's an awful lot of testing going on in an awful lot of schools. Students in Chicago are finally going back to in-person learning today after five days of canceled classes. The teachers union and city officials had been in a stalemate over COVID safety, and though they now have a deal with a final vote by union members today, there may still be some issues. So we've called Stacy Davis Gates, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, who joins us via Skype. Good morning.

STACY DAVIS GATES: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Are students and teachers safer than you think they would have been a week ago?

DAVIS GATES: Well, I think students and teachers have better safeguards in place. I think that there are accountability mechanisms in place with the agreement. We found that the plan the city gave us, it just didn't have anything. We literally had a five-day work action because we didn't have face coverings.

INSKEEP: You didn't have face coverings. There were not sufficient - what? - N95 masks? Is that what you were looking for?

DAVIS GATES: That's exactly right. N95 masks were not available to members or students. They are now. We have enhanced protections with our safety committee. Contact tracing will be anchored at the local school level. We found that notifications and clarity around who had what was not being done well enough because it was too decentralized. We also have a mechanism now that triggers a school or a classroom to be shut down because there's too much COVID and/or the lack of staffing in the school community.

INSKEEP: Without getting into all the details, because I would imagine it's as complicated in Chicago as it is in the schools that my kids are attending, are Chicago schools in a position to test all the teachers and students on a regular basis, and how regular will it be?

DAVIS GATES: Well, I think we have expanded testing. The difficulty here was getting to - getting the mayor and the city to agree to an opt-out clause where students would be able to be tested. And if they weren't, the parents would opt out. Around the country, you have a bigger pool of people to be tested if you do so. That didn't happen. So as a result of disagreement, the school district yesterday called parents and received verbal consent from families, and they will be doing so all week.

INSKEEP: I think what you're saying by the opt-out is that it's presumed that it is OK to test the kid unless the parent calls up and says - actively says, don't test my kid. Is that right?

DAVIS GATES: That is exactly right. And we found that in school districts here in the state and around Chicagoland, you have a larger pool of students to test from with that mechanism.

INSKEEP: Stacy Davis Gates, can you just address the way that the Chicago schools' shutdown played into the larger debate about schools? There has been a degree of resentment among parents toward teachers, just to give one example of the way resentment has flowed in different ways. To what extent would you defend the teachers unions' course here, and to what extent would you defend teachers who have perhaps been more insistent than other people in society might like about keeping schools closed when they feel it's not safe for them?

DAVIS GATES: Well, I don't think it is an issue of defense as much as it's an issue of reality. In reality, many of our school communities do not have the necessary mitigations implemented and monitored to keep it safe for everyone that's there. I would think, as a mom of three myself, that it is important for the folks who are entrusted with the care of my children to tell me what's happening in the school community, to have me on alert to understand what the impacts are in the school community because my children come home. And when they come home, they bring with them whatever they received in school. I think it was very brave of the teachers here in Chicago and, quite frankly, the teachers nationwide who are pushing back on this narrative that they're expendable. They're not expendable. They are asking for basic protections to keep schools stable and to keep people safe.

INSKEEP: Just a few seconds left. But do you want to respond to a bit of news we got? Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has battled with the union, I know, on some issues, tested positive for COVID yesterday.

DAVIS GATES: Look; I wish her the best - a fast and speedy recovery. Look; COVID is an insidious, contagious virus that has impacted, you know, tons of Americans.

INSKEEP: Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, thank you so much.

DAVIS GATES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.