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Chicago schools closed after teachers union votes to work remotely

It is unclear whether in-person learning will resume this week as negotiators for teachers and the school district meet to discuss the union's safety demands.

CHICAGO (CN) — The Chicago Public School District has canceled all classes through Thursday in response to a Tuesday night vote by 73% of the members of the Chicago Teachers Union not to return to in-person teaching amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

The move is the latest in a dispute between the district and the union over Covid-19 safety in schools, and whether the school system is ready to move away from remote learning.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said during a press conference Wednesday morning that the union supports an eventual resumption of in-person teaching, hopefully starting Jan. 18.

Though the school district maintains that schools are safe for teachers and students to return to immediately, Sharkey said teachers would not return to their classrooms unless the union's safety demands had been met. These included mandatory testing for students prior to their return, weekly testing for students that parents would have to opt out of instead of opt in, and a standardized district-wide protocol for closing buildings.

“If you want to get us into the schools quicker, provide testing. Do what D.C. has done, New York has done, Los Angeles has done, Cleveland has done," Sharkey said.

CPS and CTU negotiators met Wednesday afternoon to discuss the union's demands. Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said in a Wednesday night press conference that classes would be canceled Thursday as negotiations continue. Though he said schools would be open Friday, he was non-committal as to whether classes would resume Friday as well.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot was already taking a hardline stance prior to the meeting.

"We are committed to remaining at the table with CTU leadership and negotiating a fair agreement. But what we cannot accept is unilateral action to shut down the entire district, depriving hundreds of thousands of students of the safe, in-person schooling environment they need," Lightfoot said Wednesday.

Simon Lopez, a CPS graduate and parent of current elementary students, said that being caught between CPS and CTU was frustrating, but that he was torn over the issues the union raised.

“I’m 50-50. I want my daughter in school… but I understand if the schools and teachers aren’t getting what they need,” he said, also adding that he felt CPS was “not distributing funds to the schools that they need.”

Lopez also said that should classes remain cancelled until Jan. 18, he and his wife would have to adjust their work schedules and possibly pay for more babysitters.

“I’ll have to come in [to work] later, stay later,” Lopez said.

CPS sought to return to full in-person classes on Monday with the start of the spring term. The union vocally opposed the return over the winter break and through Monday and Tuesday, with many members saying that their schools were unequipped to handle in-person teaching amid the worst surge in the Covid-19 pandemic to date, driven by the omicron variant. The Illinois Department of Public Health reported more than 32,000 new cases in the state on Wednesday alone.

Martinez called the accusation that school buildings were unsafe "misinformation," and said Tuesday night that individual school administrators could decide if they wanted their students to return to in-person classes or stay remote, or some mixture thereof.

"We have said that the best solution [to address the Covid-19 pandemic in schools] is to do it at the school level," Martinez said in a Tuesday night press conference ahead of the union vote. "Our principals are empowered, our teachers are empowered, they have safety committees, we have invested money in the filtration systems."

The union countered that only a district-wide, standardized protocol would suffice. Members took to Twitter on Monday and Tuesday to make their case, posting reports of buildings lacking heat, staff lacking masks and Covid-19 tests, and large numbers of absentee students and staff.

Teachers and sympathetic staff also pointed out that there are preexisting unsanitary conditions in some buildings, an issue that has long been blamed on the privatization of CPS' maintenance services. For-profit facility services company Aramark signed a three-year contract with the school district in 2021 to perform sanitation and maintenance in the district, despite earlier promises from Lightfoot that school sanitation services would be made public from 2021 onward.

"35,223 tests completed and 24,836 of those invalid! 18% test positivity rate for those that were processed. Why in the world is @ChiPubSchools pretending they have a safe plan?!" the nonprofit advocacy education group Illinois Families for Public Schools said via Twitter on Sunday, referring to the school district's own numbers for its Covid-19 testing of students and staff during the break.

As of Tuesday night, the city reported an average of over 1,000 new child cases of Covid-19 per day, though no hospitalizations.

Martinez maintained Tuesday night that the school buildings were safe and ready to receive students, as did Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. Lightfoot called the choice by the union not to return to in-person classes an "illegal work stoppage" ahead of the vote, threatening unspecified consequences for the union and its leadership.

In rebuttal, union members pointed out that they voted only to stay in remote learning, not to strike or stop work. They turned the work stoppage accusation back at Lightfoot and CPS leadership on Wednesday; using the hashtag #LoriLockout, many teachers posted to social media that they were ready and willing to work, but had been locked out of their remote teaching accounts by the school district.

Ultimately it was Martinez who made the call to cancel Wednesday classes, saying Tuesday night that it was his only "responsible" course of action.

Martinez also said that he could not authorize a full return to remote-only learning without the approval of Democratic Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, or by an emergency order by Arwady. Arwady in turn said that any district-wide return to remote learning would also likely require a larger closure of businesses in the city.

She said she was reluctant to make such an order, despite Covid-19 spread in the city being higher on Wednesday than when the first lockdowns began in 2020. Laying responsibility for the current crisis at the feet of unvaccinated Chicagoans, she said she could not imagine closing schools while the city's bars and restaurants remain open.

"In what world would we think to close something essential, like in-person education, when we have seen the negative effects of that, while our bars remain open?" Arwady asked rhetorically Tuesday night.

Neither the mayor's office nor the Department of Public Health returned a request for comment on what conditions would be necessary for Arwady to order an emergency business closure in the city.

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