‘This Was Allowed to Be Politicized’: Superintendent Pedro Martinez on Battling Texas’s Governor and Chicago’s Union on Vaccines, Masks and Keeping Schools Open

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez visited a classroom on Jan. 3. A day later, the Chicago Teachers Union voted to shift to remote learning. (Chicago Public Schools via Twitter)

Special Report: This is one in a series of articles, galleries and interviews looking back at two years of COVID-related learning disruptions, taking stock at what’s been lost — and where we go from here. Follow our coverage, and see our full archive of testimonials, right here

To mark the 700th day since schools shut down because of COVID-19, The 74 spoke with parents, educators, researchers and students across the U.S. We are running some of these interviews in their entirety to give complete accounts of where we’ve been and where some think we’re going.

A lot of people changed jobs during the pandemic. Pedro Martinez was one of them, leaving his position as superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District, which he held for five years, to lead the nation’s third largest school district in Chicago. The political contexts could not have been more different for Martinez, who also chairs Chiefs for Change, a network of superintendents. He left a state led by a governor opposed to masks and hardline COVID protocols for a mayoral-controlled district with a powerful union determined to make sure schools were implementing all COVID mitigation measures. In February, he spoke with The 74 about standing up to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, the impact of poverty on students during remote learning and hopeful signs that students are making up for lost learning.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: What was the moment you realized everything changed? What were you doing before and after?

Pedro Martinez: The majority of districts in San Antonio were on spring break and we were hearing about the pandemic and about things possibly shutting down. I remember talking to my colleagues in San Antonio and in Texas, saying, “We gotta figure out a way to convince people not to close the schools.” Our fear was that if the schools closed we wouldn’t be able to open them again because we could sense the fear just rising. There was a lot that was unknown. Some of us were already agreeing to fight it. But then the entire state shut down and the entire country shut down and we realized we lost. We weren’t in control anymore. 

Were you yourself on break? Had you left town?

Ironically, my family is from Chicago, so we were in Chicago, but were already in the process of returning back to San Antonio. I was on the phone literally the whole week with my board, with my union leadership in San Antonio, with all the different stakeholders, trying to assess what was going to happen. We were positioning ourselves: “How do we fight? How do we make sure we keep the schools open?” And then, of course, that decision was made for us.

What decisions do you remember having to make in the first weeks after schools closed?

I saw people responding to a crisis. For example, my food service workers knew that even though everything was shut down, they had to get food to the families. My bus drivers literally said, “We’re going to develop our own delivery system.” The whole city, the whole country was shut down. At that point, people were so scared that if they just walked outside that they could get COVID and die. That’s how fearful they were. In San Antonio, over 90 percent of my families lived in poverty. Then it became also: “How do we help, how do we provide any academic support?”

We had been worried about something happening, so my chief information officer had already ordered 40,000 devices [in early March]. We were kind of ahead of it that way. But then, how do you get them out to families? Then there were the number of children who were falling between the cracks that you had to go find, but we weren’t allowed to go to their homes because it wasn’t safe. It was just all these dynamics, all happening at that time. It’s a period that I don’t think any of us want to relive. I was frankly very encouraged by the leadership I saw on the team. We did get devices out, we did get food out, and people started thinking out of the box, even though there was a lot of fear. Then, fast forwarding to the fall [of 2020], there was the issue of how you then open the schools back up, how do you reduce the fear, how do you implement the safety procedures. At that time, we didn’t have vaccines yet. 

Vaccines for teachers and then for students were major milestones last year. Can you talk about those moments? 

My biggest memory was just frustration because the state of Texas did not prioritize teachers in the first round, but were pushing hard and threatening districts about keeping schools open. Meanwhile, the positivity rate in San Antonio was over 21 percent. The death rate was five times higher in my district than it was in the more affluent parts of the county. So I just remember the frustration of [the state] wanting these things, but not providing vaccines to my staff, who actually wanted to keep schools open.

We were a district where immediately my teachers were seeing the inequities. They could see that the children were not engaging as well as they had in person. They could tell they were struggling academically. A lot of my teachers said to me, “You always talk about the poverty,” but they got to see it firsthand when they saw the home lives of their children through those cameras. 

You also clashed with the state over masks. Did you talk to Gov. Abbott?

We were very loud about our positioning. My teachers were afraid. The union was really fighting to keep the schools closed. We had, on the other side, the state forcing us to stay open, threatening us that they would cut all of our funding if we didn’t open the schools. And then I had some different views from families, from taxpayers. It was all over the board and I remember just feeling caught in the middle. At the end, we had to decide what was in the best interest of both our staff and our children, with children being the priority. So we decided to phase in the staff, then we decided to phase in the students very slowly. We took stands on both masking and eventually on vaccines that I still feel very, very strongly about. 

I talked to staff around [the governor]. In the end, the biggest fight was with the attorney general. There were letters, it was all in writing. They would send a letter threatening us. Our lawyers would respond. Then we would make a public statement. It was more politics than it was anything else. It was never really a true, honest conversation.

What have we learned from all this? What do you feel will be some of the enduring lessons from this time? 

I would have never imagined that we could be doing video conferencing with the quality and consistency that we’re doing now. Here in Chicago, with 600 schools, we have principal meetings that we can do virtually. We do multiple groups of principals, but I can do it virtually instead of trying to figure out how to physically have meetings with that many people. So I think that’s a silver lining. I actually think there’s a place for using this academically as well. We’ve got to figure out when children are out, when they’re sick, how we continue learning beyond the classroom. I think those are positives. 

On the other side, this was allowed to be politicized. With the former administration and the current administration, one of my frustrations is the fact that I felt there should have been more decisive decision making at the federal level. Take the politics out about masking. Take the politics out about vaccines. I’ve been very clear about that. I think that should not have been left to the individual townships or cities, because that, to me, is a recipe for disaster. Myself and my colleagues are having to deal with the individual politics in our communities.

Here in Chicago, even though we have a lawsuit right now with somebody trying to fight us on the masks, generally I’ve had support on masking. But then I have the other issue, which is people would prefer to close the schools a lot sooner and a lot quicker. It was the opposite in Texas.

Another lesson learned is that I believe one of the unintended consequences of remote learning was that it exacerbated the inequities that exist in our society. More than ever, I now appreciate how our school buildings and classrooms are supposed to be the equalizers for things we can’t control. When a child grows up in poverty and does not have the resources at home, the only chance for us to even try to counter that is to have them in a warm, safe space where they feel supported, where there is food, nursing care, and the ability to work with them at their level with academic supports. When that got taken away, it exacerbated all the things we always knew about what happens when children are in poverty. The disadvantage just became much more visible.

You just went through a fight with the union last month over keeping schools open. What do you feel hopeful about now?  

A couple of things. Last year, our district had 100,000 students who were disengaged including seniors who would have dropped out. We got the majority of seniors to graduate. The same thing happened in San Antonio. We got all seniors to graduate. In Chicago, we got over 87 percent of our students [to graduate]. What I heard from teachers directly was these kids are coming every day. These are the same students who we couldn’t get to engage remotely. They’re coming every single day. I saw the first quarter grades. There are still gaps, but significant improvements over the remote year, especially with our kids of poverty and kids of color. So that gives me a lot of hope. When we have the children in our schools, they actually do perform better.

In Chicago, we’re now at a point where cases have been very steadily declining. Vaccinations are very high. Our city is now close to over a 70 percent vaccination rate. There are still gaps with students in my district, but I’m seeing a good momentum, especially with 5- to 11-year-olds. We’re close to maybe half of our district that should be fully vaccinated within the next couple weeks. Over 90 percent of my staff is fully vaccinated, so it really gives me hope that we’re on the other side of this. Right now, just under 150,000 students have had at least a first shot. More than 54 percent of my [students] 12 and up are already fully vaccinated and we’re going to get close to a third of our 5- to 11-year-olds. 

What about academic improvement? Do you think it will take as long for students to recover as some have predicted? 

I’ve talked to teachers about this. I asked them, “How do you respond to parents who are really worried because they saw such a dip in academics last year?” What they tell me is that in the first quarter, they saw significant improvements in the children’s academics. It doesn’t mean that the gap got closed, but it was so dramatic. What I used to say in San Antonio is that if you’ve ever been to one of those trampoline parks for young kids, what I felt was that people put boulders on the trampolines and they were depressed. But we strengthened the trampolines. We made sure the springs were strong. So what happens when you start taking off the boulders? You start seeing this huge jump. I think that could happen academically.

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