Chicago teacher battling cancer refuses to stop in-person classes

2 weeks ago

A Chicago teacher who is battling cancer is refusing to stop in-person classes despite the city's union vote to cancel them. 

Joseph Ocol, teacher and chess coach, said last night that he wants to 'make my life relevant somehow'.  

It comes the day after Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched a blistering attack on the city's woke teachers' unions for shuttering the city's schools for a second day over COVID fears. 

Speaking at a press conference Wednesday after talks on averting a Thursday closure broke down, Lightfoot vowed to stand up to the unions, having already halted pay for teachers who didn't show up to classes in person.

Mr Ocol told Tucker Carlson Tonight: 'I joined the Chicago public schools as a teacher first and foremost and I believe my role should be inside the classroom with my students.  

Joseph Ocol (pictured), teacher and chess coach, said last night that he wants to 'make my life relevant somehow'

CTU President Jesse Sharkey (pictured) defended the controversial decision claiming 'going in puts students and staff at risk' and that the union doesn't trust the city

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey (pictured) held a Zoom press conference on Wednesday to defend the union's vote to cancel in person classes at 11pm Tuesday and move to remote learning over COVID fears

'Despite my battling cancer, I still have a role to play right now. I just want to make my life relevant somehow. The thought that I can still be of service to my students and I can touch their lives and make a difference in their lives.'

He added that he disagrees with the union for 'dangling the plight of the kids' in a middle of a fight with City Hall. 

And he noted that forcing parents to stay home to look after and teach their own children means they are unable to go and earn a living themselves.  

He added: 'I have 82 students in my classroom and I am not aware of anyone having Covid.' 

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey held a Zoom press conference on Wednesday to defend the union's vote to cancel in person classes at 11pm Tuesday and move to remote learning over COVID fears. 

It comes the day after Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (pictured) launched a blistering attack on the city's woke teachers' unions for shuttering the city's schools for a second day over COVID fears

While the union voted for remote working, there is no such system in place, remote devices have not been handed out, and therefore Chicago's 350,000 students did not receive tuition today.  

Ms Lightfoot said yesterday: 'We will not relent, enough is enough, we are standing firm, and we are going to fight to get our kids back in in-person learning. Period. Full Stop.

'I have to ask myself again, why are we here in this moment? ... When we know that the safest place for our children is in school.

'Enough is enough, we are standing firm and we are going to fight to get our kids back and into in-person learning.'  

In a press conference Wednesday, however, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she's putting her foot down

Turning her attention to the teachers themselves, Lightfoot added: 'I have to ask myself again, why are we here in this moment? ... When we know that the safest place for our children is in school.' 

She said Tuesday that any staff who failed to show up at school facilities wouldn't be paid, and has vowed to continue withholding cash until teachers return.  

The Chicago Teachers Union sought to revert to remote instruction during the latest surge of infections and while both sides hammer out a deal. 

But Chicago Public Schools leaders have said remote learning didn't work and schools can safely remain open with protocols in place. 

Pulaski International School in Chicago is pictured closed on Wednesday after the city's teachers union told members not to attend school buildings over COVID fears 

The move to cancel classes and activities Thursday affects roughly 350,000 students and came after closed-door negotiations Wednesday failed to produce a deal. The issues include metrics for closing schools.

'We have no choice but to cancel classes tomorrow,' Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said at a Wednesday evening news conference.

Students returned to class Monday after a two-week winter break with COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations fueled by the omicron variant at record levels. 

School districts nationwide have grappled with the same issue, with most opting to stay open while ramping up virus testing, tweaking protocols and making other real-time adjustments in response to the shifting pandemic. 

Many Chicago public school students live on or below the poverty line, with analysis repeatedly showing poorer children are most likely to fall behind with remote learning.

Meanwhile, CDC data shows just 803 children aged 0 to 18 have been killed by COVID since the start of the pandemic in the US.  

The Chicago closure came after parents slammed the socialist leader of the Chicago Teachers Union after he today defended the last minute decision to shutter schools by claiming 'going in puts students and families at risk.'  

Sharkey said: 'Right now going into schools puts us at risk, puts our students and families at risk. We're in the middle of a dangerous surge. We don't think bars should be open.' 

He claimed that the city's safety plan to return to in-person learning was 'fairly inadequate.' 

Just 400 positive COVID cases were reported Tuesday morning, with about 70% students and 30% staff. There are 350,000 pupils in Chicago schools. 

Parents were quick to criticize Sharkey and the union.    

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey doubled down on the union's last minute decision to switch to all remote learning on Wednesday

The union's decision has been meet with harsh criticism from city officials and parents (Pictured: A sign taped to the front door of Pulaski International School of Chicago on Tuesday, January 5) 

Chicago Public Schools is the third-largest school district in the nation serving 350,000 students (Pictured: A sign is displayed on the front of the headquarters for Chicago Public Schools on Tuesday, January 5)

Public health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady (left) insisted that the safety protocols set in place for Chicago Public Schools were sufficient to protect the children and staff. Mayor Lori Lightfoot (right) warned that teachers who failed to turn up to work Wednesday would be docked pay

The avowed socialist who has shut down Chicago's schools: Union President Jesse Sharkey fights capitalism - while his father-in-law earns millions as CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises

James Sharkey lives in Rogers Park, Chicago with his wife Julie Fain and their two children who have grown up in the CPS system 

The union boss at the center of Chicago's school shutdown firestorm is a longtime labor activist and supporter of socialism, but critics say his lifestyle is more akin to that of the wealthiest 1 percent.

Living in an expansive $1.5 million estate on multiple adjoining lots in Rogers Park, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey is said to drive a Tesla and is married to the daughter of Royal Caribbean Cruises' recently resigned CEO.

On Tuesday, 52-year-old Sharkey led his union members in a vote to refuse in-person instruction starting immediately, citing concerns over the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

It led to a chaotic total shutdown of schools announced at 11pm the prior night, as the school system said it did not have the systems in place for virtual instruction.

Sharkey, who has led the CTU since 2014, said on Wednesday that teachers would only return to classrooms after the current surge subsides, unless the district agrees to the union's demands for new testing and health protocols.

'If you want to get us into the schools quicker, provide testing,' Sharkey said at a Wednesday news conference.

'We've been failed by the mayor, we've been failed by the public health office, and teachers and the school staff have decided the only thing we have control of is whether we go into the buildings.'

Sharkey did not immediately respond to an inquiry from on Wednesday.

The stunning drama in the nation's third-largest public school system, with an enrollment of more than 350,000, has thrust longtime Chicago activist Sharkey into the national spotlight. 

In the past, Sharkey's lavish lifestyle has drawn criticism from his opponents, and speculation that his wealthy and decidedly capitalist father-in-law is helping to bankroll his family.

Chicago journalist Mark Konkol wrote in a 2019 column for Patch that Sharkey 'talks like a working-class tough guy' but drives a Tesla and lives in a luxurious five-bedroom home.

'How can a union guy, whose wife works for a socialist non-profit book publisher, live like the wealthiest 1 percent?' wrote Konkol. 

Raised in central Maine by his mother, a poet and schoolteacher, Sharkey attended Brown University, where he majored in modern American history.

After graduating, Sharkey went into labor organizing with the United Steelworkers in North Carolina, before returning to Brown for a master's degree in teaching.

While teaching high school social studies in Providence, Rhode Island, Sharkey met his now-wife Julie Fain, the daughter of business executive Richard Fain, who has an estimated net worth of nearly $200 million.

Richard Fain on Monday resigned as CEO of the Royal Caribbean Group after a 33-year tenure, in a move that was part of a succession plan announced in November.

Sharkey's father-in-law Richard Fain (above in 2013) was the third-longest serving CEO among current S&P 500 leaders when he retired on Monday

In a statement to Chicago City Wire in 2017, Sharkey said: 'We don't choose the family of our loved ones.'

'I have a lovely wife. We have children. I live in a house in Rogers Park and only have one of them, and I send my kids to public schools,' he said.

Sharkey and Julie Fain moved together to Chicago, where she worked as an editor for the leftist magazine In These Times before co-founding radical independent book publisher Haymarket Books.

The couple share two children, Caleb - a graduate from Jones College Prep, a public school, and Leo, who was at one point a student at Harriet Tubman elementary school - both Chicago Public Schools.

In a photo obtained by where the family is pictured on a trip to Disneyland, the oldest son is seen wearing a t-shirt with a Mustangs logo - the official name used for sports teams at St Rita of Cascia, a $13,000-a-year private, all-boy's Catholic school in Chicago. 

Public records show that Sharkey and Fain own a $868,000 home in Rogers Park, and that his wife's family trust bought the adjacent lot for $625,000 in 2006.

Meanwhile Sharkey continued teaching and became increasingly involved in the teachers union, as well as far-left political groups.

He was a member of the International Socialist Organization, a Trotskyite group that opposes capitalism, until the group dissolved in 2019 over allegations that its leadership mishandled a sexual assault accusation.

From 2008 to 2013, Sharkey was an occasional contributor to the ISO publication

In 2012, when he was vice president of CTU, Sharkey appeared shaken when his attendance at the Midwest Marxism Conference was raised in an interview on local radio station WLS-AM.

'Every time unions have raised issues about what's fair and what isn't, and equality, people have branded them as Communists,' Sharkey replied.

Pressed on whether he agreed with the tenets of Marxism, Sharkey dismissed the interview as a 'witch hunt' and said: 'I'm allowed to attend a Marxist conference.' 

In 2019, Sharkey landed in hot water again when a group of Chicago teachers calling themselves a 'Chicago Teachers Union delegation' met with officials in socialist Venezuela.

The four teachers documented their trip online and heaped praise on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, whose administration was accused in United Nations reports of 'grave' human rights violations.

Sharkey downplayed the incident and tried to distance the union from the controversy.

'Members go all kinds of places in the summer,' he told WTTW at the time.

'This was neither an official trip nor something that was funded by the union. This is a group of people who are members of the CTU who decided to go to Venezuela.'

'You're using our children as leverage. Parents are the ones to decide if it's safe to send our children to school. This is a disgraceful power move,' one said on Twitter in response to his press conference.  

'If I got to vote to stay home in my warm house you bet your ass I would,' another said.

'Every single one of the teachers who don't show for in class teaching should immediately be fired,' quipped another.   

'So if you're a fully vaccinated and boosted teacher, and wear a mask all day, it's not safe to go to work? Just tying to understand for the all teachers outside of Chicago that are back at school. Can you scientifically describe your risk vs outside the City's border?' another asked. 

President Trump slammed the teachers too, saying: 'What is happening in Chicago with all the school closures is devastating. 

'Democrats are congregating en masse tomorrow to fan the flames of a divide that THEY created, while our kids sit at home watching their futures vanish. It must stop. 

'Educate our children in person or give every dollar spent on education directly to the students so they can get out of these failing government schools!   

The union's late night decision on Tuesday to close schools caused utter chaos for parents on Wednesday. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot warned that teachers who failed to turn up would be docked pay after the Chicago Teachers Union said 73% of its members endorsed the action.

Public health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady held a news conference on Tuesday to scotch claims that chidden were in danger by being at school. 

'One of the things I'm hearing the most misinformation about is that Chicago hospitals are filling up with children, that many Chicago children are dying of COVID,' Arwady said.

'That is being driven by unvaccinated adults. Child COVID hospitalizations remain very rare. 

'Across the whole city, approximately 550,000 children, we are averaging just seven COVID hospitalizations a day right now for children aged zero to 17.

'If you're vaccinated, if you're child is vaccinated, this is behaving like the flu and we don't close school districts, especially for extended periods of time, for the flu.'   

Lightfoot said: 'If we pause, what do we say to those parents who can't afford to hire somebody to come in and watch their kids, who can't ship their kids off to some other place, what do we say to those students who are already struggling?' 

'We need to lean in to the science and the data and not push that to the side and give in to fear-mongering and hysteria,' she insisted. 

The mayor also said she feared the delayed reopening would stretch on past the January 18 date planned by CTU leaders.  

The CTU demanded that students and staff members provided a negative COVID-19 test result before entering buildings on Monday.          

The union also wants daily health questionnaires to be reinstated, free masks for all staff and students and wants schools to shift to remote learning if 20% or more of staff is in isolation or quarantine. 

The head of Chicago Public Schools, Pedro Martinez, is distributing  200,000 KN95 masks for teachers and staff, requiring indoor mask-wearing in schools and weekly testing is mandatory for unvaccinated staff members and optional for students. 

Martinez has bent over backwards to meet the union's demands. 

The mayor said that CTU Sharkey denied Martinez's request to delay the vote in order to allow officials to present an updated safety plan for returning in person. 

Sharkey did not respond to for comment on the on-going situation.  

'The worst thing we can do is to shut the entire system down. What we need to be focused on is working together,' Lightfoot said. 

'What I'd love to see CTU do is not force an illegal work stoppage. What I'd love to see them do is work hand-in-glove with us to get kids and their families vaccinated.' 

Martinez has proposed that a school would move to virtual instruction if at least 40% of its classroom teachers are absent for two consecutive days due to COVID and schools would resume in-person instruction after five to 10 school days .

He is also restoring health screeners and temperature checks to allow entry into buildings. 

However, these measures were insufficient for the teachers' union and they voted to stay at home.   

'This decision was made with a heavy heart and a singular focus on student and community safety,' the union said in a statement.

However, district officials blamed the union for the late cancellation, saying despite safety measures, including a high teacher vaccination rate, 'our teachers are not willing to report to work.'

'We are deeply concerned about this decision but even more concerned about its impact on the health, safety, and well-being of our students and families,' the district said in a statement. 

The status of instruction for the rest of the week remained in limbo, while district leaders said a plan to 'continue student learning' would come later Wednesday. 

A fierce battle took place last January over similar issues causing a bumpy start to the district's return to in-person instruction after first going remote in March 2020.

Martinez said buildings on Wednesday would remain open for administrators, staff and 'essential services,' but later clarified that students would be taken care of if dropped off despite classes being cancelled for the day.

District officials said schools would offer food service from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and COVID-19 testing would continue as scheduled, but afterschool activities would be canceled. The district also provided a list of city sites with available daycare. 

The district said roughly 82% of its roughly 21,600 teachers reported to work Monday, which was lower than usual, but that classes were covered by substitute teachers and other staff.

District officials said student attendance for the week was not yet available.

Roughly 100,000 students and 91% of its more than 47,000 staff in the district are vaccinated, according to the district.  

A major concern of remote learning is how it impacts level of and access to education, mental health, and social learning. Students with learning disabilities and special needs are especially at a disadvantage when schools revert to remote learning. 

 Mother Tiffany Tassone voiced her frustration about her children missing out on their education and accused the teachers of the CTU of being 'selfish.' 

'Childcare is not my problem!!! It's education for my kids that is the problem!! You all had 2 weeks to decide to close and do remote, but NO you chose to WAIT until 2 days AFTER kids come back , to close??? What was the actual point of that? THESE KIDS NEED TO BE IN SCHOOL. TEACHERS YOUR JOB IS TO GIVE OUR CHILDREN THE EDUCATION THEY NEED... THATS WHAT YOU SIGNED UP FOR.. TO TEACH AND MAKE A DIFFERENCE!!!


She explained that her young son has severe ADHD and has difficulties focusing with remote learning and is unable to complete a full day of classes when he is at home.  

'So what? My son misses subjects, and just fails?' Tassone wondered. 

CPS parent La Trice Twin McFadden is also frustrated with the union's instance the school system goes fully remote. 

'Please give us an option! Let us parents choose for our children if either in person learning or remote learning is better for our children,' she pleaded on Facebook.  

Chicago Teachers Union president Jesse Sharkey denied the CPS's request to delay the union's vote to allow officials to present a revised safety plan 

Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said buildings would remain open for administrators and that students would be taken off if dropped off on Wednesday

But some parents were left scrambling to decide how to care for their children after the union's last minute announcement.  

 Ariana Miche understands wanting to protect children from contracting COVID-19 'but some kids don't work well remotely' and noted that 'some grades are crucial for kids.' 

'We need to make alternate plans for her,' parent Vinoth Alphonse told CBS Chicago

'I would obviously prefer it to be in person,' said parent Praveen Sivaraman. 'That is always good for the kids.' 

Lightfoot noted that the last time CPS went to all-remote learning 'we saw was 100,000 children – particularly Black and Brown children – that were disconnected from the system and learning.' She also notes that the school system saw a three-fold increase in failing grades among elementary school kids during remote learning.  

The mayor added that all-remote learning also resulted cause the students 'social-emotional trauma,' after being separated from social interactions and connections that 'keep them healthy mentally and emotionally.' 

'The worst ting that we can do is shut the entire system down,' Lightfoot said.  

High Jump, a group that provides academic enrichment, counseling and support to students of diverse backgrounds, found that 40% of CPS middle schoolers do not have consistent access to a device (tablet, computer) and nearly 30% do not have high speed Internet at home.