Advertisement

Chicago cancels classes for a third day as fight over COVID-19 safety drags on

Chicago school parent gesturing while speaking
Attorney Mary Bluma, a single parent in Chicago, talks about having her two children at home instead of in school Thursday.
(Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)
Share

Leaders of the nation’s third-largest school district canceled classes for a third consecutive day as heated negotiations continued with the Chicago teachers union over remote learning and other COVID-19 safety measures.

The union, which voted this week to revert to online instruction, told teachers not to show up to schools starting Wednesday during the latest coronavirus surge while both sides negotiate. The move just two days after students returned from winter break prompted district officials to cancel classes Wednesday, Thursday and now Friday in the roughly 350,000-student school system, insisting that there is no plan to return to districtwide remote instruction.

School districts nationwide have confronted the same pandemic issues, with most opting to stay open while ramping up virus testing, refining protocols and making other adjustments in response to the shifting pandemic. But a growing number of school districts, including some large ones, have gone back to remote learning as infections soar and sideline staff members.

Advertisement

In a message to parents Thursday, Chicago leaders said classes would be canceled Friday but “in-person learning and activities may be available at a small number of schools” based on how many employees report to work. A small percentage of teachers, along with substitutes, have continued to come to schools during what the district has labeled an “illegal work stoppage.”

Some schools preemptively alerted parents earlier Thursday that they didn’t have enough staff and wouldn’t accept students aside from offering meal pickup in the largely low-income and Black and Latino district. The district said roughly 10% of about 21,620 teachers came to work Wednesday and on Thursday it was close to 13%.

“Our schools are the best, safest place for students to be during this pandemic, and we are working tirelessly to get everyone back in class every day,” Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said in a statement Thursday evening. “We will continue working with [the union] to resolve this situation and will provide you with ongoing updates as the week continues.”

California colleges, both public and private, announce extension of remote instruction, saying high positivity rates call for extra precautions.

Chicago’s school leaders have rejected a return to remote learning, saying it worsens racial inequities and is detrimental to academic performance, mental health and attendance. District officials have spent about $100 million on a safety plan, including air purifiers in classrooms.

There was little sign Thursday that either side was softening. The district and union both filed labor complaints with the state this week as negotiations continued. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has said the city is considering legal options to get teachers back in classrooms, issued a statement late Thursday saying negotiations went on most of the day and were “productive from our perspective.”

The city has said that teachers who don’t come to schools won’t get paid. Issues on the table include more testing and metrics to trigger school closures.

The union has blasted the district for not doing enough, like botching a testing program and maintaining unreliable data on infections in schools. They’ve sought demands similar to the provisos in a safety agreement put in place last year after a fierce debate. However, the district says the pandemic is different now from a year ago and requires a different response, particularly since 91% of school staff members are vaccinated.

Many schools are struggling to find staff. Many students are staying home. Test kits from the state are too few and often too late.

Lightfoot accused the union of politicizing a pandemic, while the union’s president, Jesse Sharkey, dubbed her “Lockout Lori,” because teachers haven’t been able to log into remote-learning systems since early Wednesday.

“Enough is enough,” Lightfoot said Thursday morning on MSNBC. “I’m tired of the Groundhog Day appearance of everything that goes on with the Chicago Teachers Union leadership. We need partnership; we don’t need conflict. “

Sharkey said Lightfoot was wrong to blame teachers.

“We have rights to safety, and we’ve been at the bargaining table for 20 months to secure those rights,” he wrote in an email to the union’s roughly 25,000 members. “We haven’t shifted the goal posts one bit; in fact, we’ve been saying the same thing for months: Please, work WITH us to set up comprehensive testing, work with us to vaccinate students, and work with us to establish basic guard rails.”

California’s top public education official said the state will pursue an initiative to add 10,000 mental health clinicians to schools.

Many parents are frustrated with having again to make last-minute arrangements for their children and wondered whether being out of school longer might contribute to the spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s almost contradictory because ... these kids and their parents have to find some activities for the children when they’re not in school and they’re with other kids en masse now,” said parent Mary Bluma, who has two children in Chicago schools. “So it’s almost like, oh, there’s probably a better chance they’re going to spread COVID or, you know, get sick from other kids because now we’re not in a structured environment like a classroom where there are rules in place.”


Advertisement