Chicago Teachers Union Used Parent's Death To Push for COVID Restrictions. She Actually Died of Alcoholism.

Demonstrators participate in a protest outside of City Hall calling for public school classes to be held remotely when school begins in the fall on Aug. 03, 2020 in Chicago, Ill. The protest was hosted by the Chicago Teachers Union, community groups, and parent organizations. / Getty Images
March 8, 2022

Chicago's powerful teachers' union, which kept public schools shuttered through much of the pandemic, cited the death of a mother in the school district as proof of the dangers of COVID-19 in the classroom and reason for greater health restrictions. But the woman's death had nothing to do with the coronavirus, according to her autopsy report, which found she drank herself to death.

A toxicology report obtained by Chicago City Wire found that Denisha Henry, 32, died last September of "chronic ethanolism," a phrase commonly used in coroners' reports to describe deaths caused by alcoholism.

But the Chicago Teachers Union attributed Henry's death to coronavirus transmission at her child's school, Jensen Scholastic Academy. The union issued a statement and staged a rally that identified Henry as a COVID fatality and called for stricter pandemic measures in public schools.

The union described Henry and another Jensen mother who died the same week, Shenitha Curry, as "two school mothers" who "die[d] of COVID." The group also implied both mothers died from contracting the virus after their children brought it back from school, even though Chicago's public health commissioner had found no evidence of a link between the mothers' deaths and in-school COVID transmission.

"Both mothers had children sent home from quarantined Jensen classrooms," the Chicago Teachers Union said after Henry's death. "One mother complained bitterly on social media that she was never contacted by a contact tracer. Within a week she was dead."

The union demanded that Chicago adopt new pandemic measures in response to Henry and Curry's deaths, including weekly universal testing, more rigorous contact tracing, and new staff hires. The union also chastised the city government for rolling back school restrictions, such as social distancing and metrics that force schools to close when they reach a certain number of COVID cases.

The Chicago Teachers Union did not return a request for comment regarding its decision to identify Henry as a coronavirus victim.

Chicago media outlets, including CBS affiliate WBBM-TV and ChalkBeat Chicago, repeated the claim that Henry died of COVID.

The Chicago Teachers Union gained notoriety during the pandemic for its staunch opposition to reopening schools. The union stalled negotiations with the city for months last year before reaching a reopening agreement. Then members voted in January to move to virtual learning amid the spread of the Omicron variant, forcing the district to cancel classes for five days and prompting Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D.) to accuse the union of "[taking] our children hostage." The union on Tuesday vowed to fight the district's decision to allow students and staff the option not to wear a mask starting next week.

A study published last year by the American Academy of Pediatrics found in-school transmission of COVID to be "extremely rare," with the study's authors concluding that "schools can stay open safely in communities with widespread community transmission."