More than 340,000 students are shut out of school Wednesday, January 5, 2022, after a deadlock between the Chicago Teachers Union and the school district over Covid-19 safety — the most dramatic example yet of tension in US schools amid the spread of the Omicron variant.
On Tuesday night, the teachers’ union voted to teach virtually rather than in classrooms — prompting district leadership to cancel school for Wednesday.
The teachers’ union said conditions for in-person learning, which had resumed Monday, were unsafe — citing inadequate staffing and testing resources as new Covid-19 cases and new hospitalizations among children reached record highs.
But Chicago Public Schools and the city’s mayor have been adamant that students in the nation’s third-largest school district need to learn in classrooms.
After the sudden cancellation of classes for Wednesday, officials said they would update the plan for resuming in-person learning by the end of Wednesday.
Union says the city has ‘failed’ to meet basic demands
CTU President Jesse Sharkey said teachers would rather be in classrooms — but in-person learning without added safety precautions would put teachers, staff, students, and their families at risk.
This is a virus that’s raging through the city,” Sharkey told reporters Wednesday morning.
“We want to teach, and we want to do what’s right for our students. And we are prepared to do that remotely starting today.”
He said the city of Chicago has “failed to deliver a whole number of basic demands that we need in the schools, has failed to provide adequate staffing, adequate cleaning in the schools, has failed to provide adequate testing, has failed to address our concerns as people going to the schools.”
As a result, Sharkey said, “teachers and the school staff have decided the only thing we get to control is whether we go into the buildings.”
Teachers will not be compensated for the canceled school day
The Chicago Teachers Union had an emergency meeting Tuesday night have a vote by its delegates (elected union leaders for individual schools) on virtual teaching and then poll its 25,000 members electronically. The vote was 73% in favor of the remote-work-only job action, the union tweeted.
The Chicago Public Schools described the union vote as an “unfortunate decision.”
The union said the action will end when the current surge in cases “substantially subsides” or if Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS sign an agreement establishing conditions for a return that are approved by the union’s delegates.
It added: “Educators of this city want to be in buildings with their students. We believe that classrooms are where our children should be. But as the results tonight show, Mayor Lightfoot and her CPS team have yet to provide safety for the overwhelming majority of schools.”
Teachers will not be compensated for refusing to report in person, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said at a news conference held as the vote was underway Tuesday.
“I have to tell you it feels like Groundhog Day,” Lightfoot said. “CTU leadership is compelling its membership to make a decision that will harm hundreds of thousands of Chicago families who rely upon CPS for the daily needs for their education, for their nutrition, for their safety. That’s real harm.”
The school district said it will update the plan for resuming learning to families and students by the end of Wednesday.
Union says there are severe staffing shortages
The union’s vice president, Stacy Davis Gates, said earlier that teachers are dealing with “severe staffing shortages” and a lack of mitigation measures against Covid-19.
“The layers of mitigation that we need to keep our schools open and keep our students inside of the school buildings have not happened here in Chicago,” Davis Gates told CNN on Tuesday.
Inadequate testing in schools was one of the main issues for teachers, union president Jesse Sharkey said earlier Tuesday.
“If we had testing, if we had a way to help ensure that people coming into the buildings weren’t carrying the Omicron variant, that would be a different matter, but that’s not what’s going on right now,” Sharkey told CNN’s Victor Blackwell.
“The teachers are being put in the unfortunate situation where we’re trying to keep people safe. We’re trying to run school, and we’re not being given the tools to do it,” Sharkey said.
Several parents expressed their frustration and dismay at the prospect of their children learning remotely again, with some blaming both sides.
“I am very disappointed in the Chicago Teachers Union for the fearmongering tactics and negative rhetoric regarding this vote. I am equally disappointed in the CPS CEO and our mayor,” parent Carolina Barrera Tobón told CNN.
“CPS has dropped the ball on so many important decisions and the implementation of safety procedures, and I honestly do not trust the teachers union to stay remote for only two weeks after their continued spread of misinformation regarding the safety of our schools,” said Tobón, who has children in the first and third grades at Inter-American
Magnet School and is a professor at DePaul University.
Others worried about the negative effect of distance learning on the children.
“Here we go again,” said Natasha Dunn, mother to a seventh-grader at Harriet Tubman Elementary School. “I am completely against schools closing. Jill has been in school pretty much every day since August without any issues.”
“She was so excited to be back in school interacting with her classmates, joining clubs, and participating in sports,” Dunn said. “We have started seeing her grades improve and her overall mood. Closing the entire district down will only interrupt her progress.”
The district’s leadership and the city’s top health official argued before the vote schools were safe and children weren’t especially endangered by the virus.
“There is no evidence that our schools are unsafe,” Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said Tuesday.
The union vote comes as pediatric Covid-19 cases nationwide have reached record levels, according to data released Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics, with cases increasing almost 64% in the week ending December 30 from the prior week.
Chicago Health Department Commissioner Allison Arwady, though, argued Covid-19 is not affecting children nearly as severely as adults.
“I understand that people are scared,” Arwady said. “I understand that you’re looking at those numbers and seeing that they’re high, but I want to just reassure you that, especially if you’re vaccinated, your child is vaccinated, this is behaving really like the flu and we don’t close school districts, especially for extended periods of time, for the flu.”
“I remain extremely comfortable with children continuing in-person education,” Arwady said, speaking at the same news conference as Martinez.
Martinez said keeping students in schools gives the district better access to families to get them tested and vaccinated.
“One of the reasons why I continue to plead, including with CTU leadership, to keep the schools open and to keep classes going because that’s our best chance to reach families,” Martinez said.
The vote was not unexpected. At a union virtual town hall meeting Sunday, about 80% of the 8,000 members who attended indicated they did not want to return to work in person under the current conditions, a union official said.
In similar circumstances in the past, the district has threatened to lock teachers out of their remote classrooms, the official added.