Two days after Chicago Public Schools (CPS) resumed in-person learning after a weeklong shutdown, as City officials and Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leaders negotiated bitterly over COVID safety protocols, hundreds of students from an estimated forty-plus CPS schools walked out around noon on Friday, January 14, demanding for a safe return to classes, an action organized by the newly-formed student coalition Chi-RADS.
Many showed up to CPS headquarters at 42 W. Madison, calling on Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez to listen to them. Their main demand: that the City bring students to the table and ensure their voices are prioritized in conversations about developing a COVID-19 safety plan in CPS, and for City officials to release and be transparent about school COVID-19 data.
It’s believed to be the largest mass mobilization of students the city has seen in many years, organizers said. Among their demands, they called for CPS to support students through fully funding CTA public transportation for all students, providing one full-time therapist or psychologist for every thirty students, providing every student with a personal laptop, funding social emotional learning as well as arts and music programs, and providing COVID relief stipends to students and their families.
They rallied for the implementation of measures to slow the spread of COVID, such as by providing rapid antigen tests in every school, as well as distributing them to communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. They called for vaccine education for skeptical and non-native English-speaking parents, and the provision of sufficient N- N95 masks, as well as wipes, hand sanitizer, hand washing stations, and working air ventilation machines in every classroom. Students also demanded a “sustainable and efficient contact tracing system that considers where infected students are in all parts of their day, with the help of student and school community input.”
As part of CPS’ agreement with the CTU, which passed on January 12 after CTU members voted to approve it, CPS will provide additional KN95 masks and allow each school to have a contact tracing team that will allow staff to be paid to do contact tracing for student cases in their buildings.
Acknowledging that there’s no blanket plan that will work for every school and student, students also proposed that “every school should have a peer pod task force” made up of members of the school body, including teachers, staff, and students, and parents and the administration to create a school-specific COVID response plan.” Each pod would consider the way the building should be used and occupied, create teams of peer/teacher support, engage in restorative practices, and determine what kind of extra support CPS should provide.
The Weekly asked CPS students who participated in the walkouts to share their thoughts. Here’s how some of them responded:
“I believed in the demands/manifesto of sorts posted by Chi-RADS, and while I supported CTU in the remote work action, I felt neither CTU nor CPS were listening to students, even though we are the majority in every school. I felt unsafe going to school with no option to go remote unless I tested positive, and that the metrics of school-wide remote learning only when forty percent of students or thirty percent of teachers quarantine were way too high. We’re fighting for our [lives].”
Adrián R. (they/them), a junior at Whitney Young High School.
“I was motivated because I was tired and constantly anxious. I did not want to get COVID. I did not want to bring it home to my family. I wanted to bring attention to the way our schools function during the pandemic, the way they do not keep us safe, the way CPS does not invest in Chicago youth, the way we are risking our health for education.”
Rein (they/them), a senior at Solorio High School.
“Students are begging for safer environments for their education, we’ve sat in unsafe classrooms and protested, but still see no changes. You claim to value students yet profit off of mandating attendance in unprecedented highs in a pandemic. Stop treating the children of CPS as an afterthought and start valuing us as people. We’re the ones who have to experience these conditions, not you, not your staff, and definitely not your own children.”
Ava (she/her), a junior at Westinghouse College Prep
“To Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools, y’all absolutely disgust me. The way y’all have treated Black and brown children for decades gives y’all no redemption ever. How we were treated since the beginning of the pandemic was horrific and nothing but. Lightfoot, your gross fascist, antiBlack, and capitalist ways have harmed my community, Black people in my generation, and shows nothing but your true self: a slimy neoliberal jerk who’ll do nothing but protect profit and increase police presence in Black and brown neighborhoods and not actually put the people FIRST and start the process of restorative healing for us. There will be no more chances with y’all making your actions up. Y’all’s reign of terror on Black and brown kids are over. Physical revolution via all colonized people in Chicago and beyond is needed, and NOW. We will not stand by and continue to allow academic and systemic violence against Black and brown kids continue… This. Is. Our. Time.”
Ashanti Douglass (she/they), a senior at Urban Prep Academies Bronzeville
“[It was] beautiful. Seeing more than one hundred students at my school walk out was so amazing and empowering. Going downtown and seeing all the joy from students all over Chicago made me so happy. Our school had a bus full of students go downtown and seeing the bus come was amazing. We built community downtown and at our schools. We did that.”
Leila (she/her), a sophomore at Little Village Lawndale High School
“To be able to have schools across the district come together and demand the same thing shows how essential this fight is to the liberation of youth. We’re tired of not being heard, so we’re going to keep fighting.”
Judai Smith (they/them), a senior at Kenwood Academy and an organizer with Chi-RADS
“The youth collective fights to be heard, as we’ve always have. Revolution occurs whether you hear it or not. We plant for growth so that the youth rise. And they will rise.”
Shujaa, (all pronouns), a junior in high school and an organizer with Chi-RADS
Chima Ikoro is the Weekly’s community organizing section editor. Madeleine Parrish is the Weekly’s education section editor.