October 6, 2020: that is the day Cicero District 99 Superintendent Rodolfo Hernandez made the surprise announcement that teachers were expected back in classrooms less than two weeks later.
By the next day, Cicero Council President Rachel Esposito and her members were mobilized and ready for action. They had seven days until the next school board meeting to make their case that not only was this an abrupt and non-negotiated change in working conditions, but it was extremely unsafe.
Cicero’s positivity rate sat at a whopping 12.9%. The 17 school buildings in the district are outdated and in need of ventilation system improvements. Bringing back teachers and staff meant over 1,200 people would be in these buildings – many of them members of the Cicero community. And 90% of the district’s families are Latino – a segment of the population that has been hit extremely hard by the pandemic.
On October 7, the union started taking action. They released a statement to the media that was widely covered by NBC, WBBM, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Chicago Tribune. Esposito was busy fielding media calls on her lunch break and after the school day:
“Our Cicero community is full of essential workers, and I personally know of students who have multiple family members who have passed away from COVID. This is a Latinx community, which has been disproportionately affected by COVID. ... If they bring 1,300 staff members back into the buildings, I’m afraid of what will happen.” (Chicago Tribune)
In addition to making their voices heard in the media, the union used community connections to communicate their cause. Some community members had started a petition to keep the schools closed – including to staff and teachers – and the union helped promote that on social media and via a texting tree. The union also used their relationships with community organizations like children’s centers and local churches to drum up support. This helped inform parents and truly made this a community issue. With such a high positivity rate in Cicero, many of its inhabitants had very real concerns about community spread.
The union also reached out to local politicians, including State Representative Lisa Hernandez (24th Legislative District), U.S. Representative Jesús “Chuy” García (4th Congressional District), and even Governor JB Pritzker. Union members and other staff who lived in Cicero contacted town officials as well.
On top of that, the union released a call to action using social media, email, and their member newsletter that gave members all the information they needed to take action. They asked members to attend the board meeting and to write letters to the board of education. Over 400 letters were sent and included not only members’ fears about returning to school buildings, but also their remote teaching success stories.
October 14 was the board meeting. In an attempt to thwart an onslaught of comments from community members, teachers, and staff, the board had switched to a new meeting platform the night before that required anyone who wished to speak to register beforehand. Even with less than a day to adapt, the union had over 100 members sign up to make comments. After comment #34, the board put an end to the meeting.
On October 15, the announcement was made cancelling the October 19 push for teachers and staff to fully return to school buildings.
The battle was won, but the war is far from over. The return to buildings has been pushed back until November 9, but the union isn’t stopping their efforts to keep the Cicero community safe. They’ve reached out to the Cook County Health Department to inquire about Cicero’s positivity rate trend and what precautions would be necessary to take to return to school buildings safely. They have also initiated a collaboration with the district to complete a hazard analysis on all 17 buildings to determine what changes would need to be made to provide a safe working and learning environment. And they continue to push for negotiations with the school board on any measures that takes teachers, staff, and eventually students back to school buildings.
As of October 27, 2020, Cicero’s positivity rate stands at 18.73%. Office staff are working from school buildings and teachers are expected to come back to buildings in two weeks. The fight goes on.