CHICAGO (AP) — Classes were canceled for students in the nation’s third-largest district Wednesday as Chicago school leaders and the teachers union continued negotiations over safety protocols amid an explosion in COVID-19 infections.
Both sides remained locked in an increasingly contentious battle over whether to return to remote instruction on a wide scale as school and union leaders tried to hammer out an agreement on issues including metrics to close schools.
Chicago has largely rejected a districtwide return to remote instruction, saying it was disastrous for children’s learning and mental health. But the union argued that district safety protocols don’t go far enough and voted late Tuesday in favor of returning to remote teaching, instructing members not to show up to schools.
Labeling it an “illegal work stoppage,” Chicago Public Schools responded by canceling classes and afterschool activities for some 350,000 students just two days after they returned from holiday break.
Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said teachers don’t want to return to schools until the current surge subsides.
“We’d rather be in our classes teaching, we’d rather have the schools open. What we are saying though is that right now we’re in the middle of a major surge, it is breaking all the records and hospitals are full,” he said during a news conference.
Union leaders instructed teachers to log into teaching platforms Wednesday, but teachers said they were not able to.
CPS leaders said a plan would come later Wednesday to “continue student learning” and that teachers who didn’t report to schools wouldn’t be paid. Last year during debate on a previous safety agreement, the district punished no-show teachers.
The district kept its more than 400 schools open Wednesday for administrators, staff and student meal pickup.
But the late cancellation notice, with the union’s vote ending around 11 p.m. and the district’s cancellation even later, frustrated families who scrambled to make other arrangements. The pandemic disruptions follow a teachers strike in 2019 and a work stoppage in 2016 in the largely low-income and Black and Latino school district.
Parent Danelda Craig, who spoke at the union’s news conference, said she was “taken aback” by the city’s public health commissioner’s suggestion that people could wear two masks to improve protection. Craig said most children struggle with one.
“We want them to go to school,” she said. “What we don’t want is COVID with it.”
Still, some schools reported low attendance this week, with students either in required isolation or staying home voluntarily to avoid exposure during the omicron-fueled surge. Infections and hospitalizations are at record levels nationwide, including in Chicago which reported 4,775 average daily cases, up from under 1,000 a month ago.
Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Tuesday that an increase in hospitalizations has been driven by unvaccinated adults and that child hospitalizations remain “very rare.” In a city with roughly 550,000 residents age 17 or younger, there was an average of seven daily hospitalizations in that age group between Thanksgiving and Dec. 29, she said. Of the 55 people age 5 to 17 who were hospitalized during that time, 46 were unvaccinated. There were no vaccinated youths age 5 to 11 who were hospitalized and no child deaths, Arwady said.
Phillip Cantor, a science teacher at North-Grand High School on the West Side, said his freshman and senior classes were about half empty earlier this week as his email filled with alerts about students forced to remain out due to COVID exposure. More than a dozen teachers also were out and there was one substitute available, so other teachers and staff helped monitor their classrooms, he said.
Cantor said voting in favor of Wednesday’s remote action was difficult because a lack of laptops and internet access made it likely that all of his students couldn’t flip overnight. But he called school days like those following the winter break “completely untenable” and risky.
“I’m not worried about my own health really, but I have students who have lost multiple family members in this pandemic,” Cantor said. “There’s been a lot of COVID-related trauma in the community and I don’t want to see more.”
Chicago’s fight comes as other districts grapple with the same issue. Most have opted to stay open while ramping up virus testing, tweaking protocols and making other real-time adjustments in response to the shifting pandemic.
While some significantly smaller, neighboring school districts have returned or plan to return to class this week, others have temporarily returned to remote learning. Niles Township High School District 219 in Skokie, just north of Chicago, switched to remote learning for the first two weeks of January due to staffing shortages, while the Lincoln Way district southwest of Chicago did so for one week, also due to staffing.
District officials blamed the union for the situation, saying schools, with safety measures like required masks indoors and improved ventilation, are safe for children. They also argued that the pandemic has changed from a year ago due to vaccines. Roughly 100,000 students and 91% of CPS’ more than 47,000 staff are vaccinated, according to the district.
“We are deeply concerned about this decision but even more concerned about its impact on the health, safety, and well-being of our students and families,” the district said in a statement.
Some classes and schools have temporarily gone remote with outbreaks. And Chicago purchased 100,000 laptops last month in anticipation of more remote instruction, but not all of them have been distributed. The union and parents have complained there aren’t enough school-issued devices and that access to them has been unequal.
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