Chicago Public Schools cancels classes due to union vote

Chicago mayor, teachers still at odds over COVID protocols

CHICAGO — Negotiations resumed Saturday to resolve a standoff between Chicago school officials and the city’s teachers union over COVID-19 precautions that canceled three days of classes, but the public war-of-words between union leaders and Chicago’s mayor showed little sign of easing.

In a statement, Mayor Lori Lightfoot flatly rejected the union’s latest proposal that its leaders described as a solution. The union softened its prior demand for broad mandatory testing but maintained that teachers and kids shouldn’t return to classrooms until mid-January.

“CTU leadership, you’re not listening,” Lightfoot said. “The best, safest place for kids to be is in school. Students need to be back in person as soon as possible. That’s what parents want. That’s what the science supports. We will not relent.”

The blunt response came less than an hour after leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union unveiled what they deemed a compromise seeking to resume remote instruction Wednesday and in-person instruction on Jan. 18. The union also backed a random screening program that students could opt out of, rather than its initial preference for mandatory testing.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said Lightfoot’s repeated opposition to using remote learning district wide and to any testing program that requires students to opt out rather than volunteering “doesn’t compute.”

Teachers agree that in-person instruction is better for their students, but everyone is forced to make difficult decisions during a pandemic, Sharkey said.

“As educators, we’re trying to use all the tools we have to make our community safe and to educate children,” he said, blasting anyone who suggests union members are showing a lack of concern for kids. “It’s hard to believe that the mayor really believes that. You know the way teachers see that? We see it as bullying.”

The union, which voted this week to revert to online instruction, told teachers not to show up to schools starting Wednesday while talks took place. The move just two days after students returned from winter break prompted district officials to cancel classes in the roughly 350,000-student district for three days, and many principals have warned parents they are unlikely to be able to hold classes on Monday.

Both Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez and Lightfoot have maintained that moving the entire district to remote instruction is a nonstarter, preferring to reserve that step in response to infections within an individual school.

The union’s proposal maintained a trigger to end in-person instruction if COVID-19 rates within the city increase at certain levels.

Lightfoot also favors an opt-in testing program contrary to the union’s stance, saying parents should be the ones making that decision for their children. Other sticking points include metrics to trigger individual school closures.

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

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 a safety agreement put in place last year after a fierce debate. However, the district says the pandemic is different now and requires a different response, particularly since 91% of school staff is vaccinated.

Attendance was low in schools earlier this week, with thousands of students in quarantine or opting to stay home to avoid exposure. Teachers widely reported being unable to access remote-learning tools from their homes this week.

Still, many parents had to scramble anew to make last-minute arrangements for their children. Others said being out of school was riskier for their kids than being in classrooms where masks and social distancing are used.