For months, Pedro Martinez has been locked in a political battle over school safety in Texas. As Superintendent of San Antonio, he challenged Governor Greg Abbott by issuing a school mask warrant. He was the only superintendent in a major Texas school district to demand that school employees be vaccinated, which sparked a lawsuit from the Texas attorney general.
Now Mr Martinez, 51, is heading for a more similar environment. He will run public schools in Chicago, the third largest school system in the country – a system that already mandates vaccines on employees and requires masks in the classroom.
We caught up with Mr Martinez on Friday for a high-profile conversation about his relationship with Gov. Abbott, his stance on student vaccination warrants, and his return to Chicago, where he grew up. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You were at the center of some of the biggest political battles for Texas schools during the pandemic. Can you explain to us what happened behind the scenes?
We started the first official day of school on August 9th. We had more cases in the first week of school than we had in any week during last year’s pandemic. It immediately scared us. The majority of them were students. And even when we looked at the staff, we started to see revolutionary cases of staff being vaccinated. So that’s what motivated our decision to first have a mask mandate, then we followed it with a vaccine mandate.
I decided to do the vaccination warrant because the governor would not allow me to request proof of vaccination for my staff. I said, we can’t handle this pandemic if I don’t even have the basic information. To date, we are the only district in Texas to have this vaccination mandate. We are still fighting in court. So far, I have only had 10 out of 8,000 employees who said, “I’m not going to get the vaccine.” We have about 120 requests for medical or religious exemptions, but again, that’s out of 8,000 employees.
Have you met Governor Abbott in the past year and a half?
We were all in a pandemic. There was very little in terms of interaction. I have immense respect for the state education commissioner. He and I have a great relationship. I always let him know every time we went to do something. But other than that, I never had direct contact with the governor.
Did the political environment play a role in your decision to leave?
Not at all. Not so much about Covid. One of the factors that made me return to Chicago, not only was my hometown, but when I met Mayor Lori Lightfoot, I found that his values were aligned. She is a champion of our children in poverty, she is a champion of our colored children.
The last time we spoke, you expressed a need for “bold leadership” around coronavirus vaccines. So far, only one major school district – Los Angeles Unified – has required vaccines for students. Do you plan to impose vaccines on Chicago students?
This is one of the things that I really want to explore. I really believe it should be done at the national level. If this is a global crisis, I don’t think it should be at the district level. We all know how important it is to have children in person at school. Most of us all agree on this. So why shouldn’t there be bold action at the national level?
Have you spoken to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona or the White House?
I have spoken to their staff, but I will tell you that I will speak to Secretary Cardona today. He calls me to welcome me to Chicago.
Are you going to lift it?
Just to be clear: are you a supporter of the Chicago student immunization mandates?
I think it should be on the table.
One of your biggest challenges in Chicago will be navigating a conflictual relationship between your new boss, Mayor Lightfoot, and the Chicago Teachers Union. What do you think are the main disagreements in this dispute? What do you personally intend to do to help resolve this problem?
I am not naive. I know there are very deep political divisions. But when it comes to, for example, the safety of our children, our children being in school in person, our schools being safe, there has to be some common ground there.
You will be the first Latino General Manager of Chicago Public Schools, where Hispanic students make up almost half of the student body. What is your message to them?
The amount of pride that I have seen is just very humbling to me. Chicago is a large family of immigrants. There was a lot of outreach from different families sharing their pride, and schools asked me to come visit their children.
I want to be very clear. I will be very aggressive in my approach to the African American community. The African American community in Chicago has always felt that they are frankly second or third class citizens. I have to make sure to enter – whether I am Latino or not – to send a clear message that I will do everything in my power to ensure fairness. I will be the champion of all children.
On a personal note, I read that you have three sisters who are teachers in Chicago public schools, and you have something like 30 nieces and nephews in the system.
With my children there are a total of 30 grandchildren – 28 nieces and nephews. Some are babies and are future CPS students, some are currently at CPS as students today, and some are in fact already graduates.
So what do your sisters think about their brother becoming their new boss?
They are very proud, and I will just say this: They are strong supporters of the union. One of my sisters had to defend me because it got a little negative on the CTU Facebook site. My sister had to talk and say, listen, let me share with you who my brother is. I actually raised my two younger sisters – one of my siblings died in a car accident and it just wiped out my parents – so I raised them from a young age. One of them is a kindergarten teacher and a strong union supporter. She made it clear in her post that she was all about the union – and in fact, she said, look, I’ll help you hold it accountable – but give it a chance.
My colleagues in the Chicago office tell me I would be remiss if I didn’t ask this: the Cubs or the White Sox?
I’m a Sox fan because I grew up with my dad who went to Comiskey Park. Three dollars in the stands, and it was still Bat Day, or Cap Day.
Deep dish or tavern style pizza?
I like both, but I will say I like the tavern style pizza.
We are at a critical time in education, with so many millions of children in need of help. If you could wave a magic wand today, what do you think is needed right now?
What I wish is if I could take the anxiety away from our staff and our parents. Last year has been a difficult year for everyone. Lots of mental health issues. I’m glad the schools are open this year and the classrooms are welcoming all of our kids, but the anxiety is still there. This is why I lobbied and pleaded for bolder action at the national level, especially around vaccines.
We do not yet know the ramifications that have occurred because of this pandemic for our children in poverty and color. For example, in my class of 2020, many kids actually put their college plans on hold. We partnered with the City of San Antonio and were able to reconnect hundreds of my graduates to make sure they go to college. But we needed case managers. So I worry. How many students are in limbo because they decided to postpone college? What are the ramifications?