Chicago teachers strike: Social workers a key sticking point

Educators call for number of school social workers to be tripled over the next five years as strike action rumbles on.

    The teachers say providing additional social workers would reduce the amount of time they need to spend handling students' extracurricular problems [File: Joshua Lott/Reuters]
    The teachers say providing additional social workers would reduce the amount of time they need to spend handling students' extracurricular problems [File: Joshua Lott/Reuters]

    As the Chicago teachers strike entered a sixth school day on Thursday, negotiations were hung up in part on the question of how many social workers the third-largest United States school system can afford for its 300,000 students.

    Mayor Lori Lightfoot's administration has proposed doubling the current number of school social workers from about 400 over the next five years, while the Chicago Teachers Union wants the number tripled.

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    The number targeted by the union in addition to its wage requests and proposal to employ one nurse in each of the city's schools - up from the current one in five schools - would swell the Chicago Public Schools' budget by about $2.4bn a year, a 31 percent increase from its current $7.7bn level, according to the mayor's office, which calls the proposals unaffordable.

    "We need people on the ground in the schools who are ready to pick a kid up when a problem arises, not when it explodes," said Jordan Lau, 36, who teaches high school health and physical education, as he marched with teachers in downtown Chicago earlier this week.

    The teachers say providing additional social workers and nurses would reduce the amount of time they need to spend handling students' extracurricular problems.

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    The strike is the latest in a series of walkouts staged by US educators in recent years, following similar actions in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. Concern over social workers also sparked a six-day Los Angeles teachers' strike early this year. The deal that ended that strike called for the city to hire one nurse per school and hire more counsellors.

    "We wouldn't have won them without the strike," said United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl. "They were not budging without our strike, so I believe the Chicago teachers are doing exactly the right thing."

    Lightfoot, a first-term Democrat whose campaign last year included promises to improve the city's school system, is also struggling with an $838m funding hole in the city's upcoming budget. She unveiled a plan on Wednesday to fill that gap by cutting spending and raising revenues. The city's budget is separate from the budget for CPS.

    Lightfoot said that even if the funds were available to hire the hundreds of social workers to meet the one-per-250-students recommendation of the National Association of Social Workers, Chicago would have a hard time finding enough trained people to fill the jobs.

    Currently, there is one social worker for every 2,160 students across the US and just 40 percent of schools have a part-time school nurse, while 25 percent have no nurse at all, according to national organisations that track staffing levels.

    'Not a light lift'

    "The mayor is not being dishonest when she says it won't be easy to hire that many social workers," said CPS social worker and union member Mary Difino. "It's not a light lift, but it's not an impossible lift."

    CPS social workers are assigned to students in multiple schools who have individualised education plans to address their educational and emotional needs.

    Since there are not enough social workers in the system and the ones working in CPS must meet quotas each month, they must make tough choices when faced with students dealing with traumatic, violent experiences or the effects of living in poverty, union members said.

    Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey told Reuters News Agency the union felt "strong pressure" to settle the second-longest teachers strike in recent US history since some students have already gone a week without the care they usually get from nurses and social workers.

    "But what we are fighting for is going to be worth it if we can get it," he said.

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    SOURCE: Reuters news agency