CHICAGO -- Chicago school leaders canceled classes for a second straight day after failing to reach an agreement Wednesday with the teachers union over remote learning and other COVID-19 safety protocols in the nation's third-largest school district.
The Chicago Teachers Union, which voted to revert to online instruction, told teachers to stay home Wednesday during the latest COVID-19 surge while both sides negotiate, prompting district officials to cancel classes two days after students returned from winter break. Chicago Public Schools, like most other districts, has rejected retuning to remote learning, saying it worsened racial inequities and was detrimental to academic performance, mental health and attendance. District officials insist schools can safely remain open with protocols in place.
School districts nationwide have grappled with the same issues, with most opting to stay open while ramping up virus testing, tweaking protocols and other adjustments in response to the shifting pandemic. White House press secretary Jen Psaki, echoing President Joe Biden a day earlier, said Wednesday that the country is better equipped now to make sure schools can safely open “including in Chicago,” while former President Donald Trump called the closures “devastating.”
District and union officials negotiated behind closed doors Wednesday afternoon but failed to produce an agreement. The issues include metrics that would trigger school closures and more COVID-19 testing. For instance, school leaders support remote learning only at the classroom and school level when there are outbreaks, as has been the case this year, versus a districtwide switch to remote learning which the union has supported.
“We know that our schools are safe. Yes. Do we have challenges across individual schools? Absolutely. Do we respond? Absolutely," Schools CEO Pedro Martinez told reporters Wednesday evening.
He said the situation with the union left “no choice but to cancel” Thursday, something that will affect roughly 350,000 students.
Martinez said students may be able to start returning to schools on Friday for services like tutoring or counseling depending on how many staff members show up. Buildings stayed open Wednesday for meal pickup in the largely low-income and Black and Latino school district.
Union President Jesse Sharkey said teachers don’t want to return to in-person instruction until the current surge has subsided.
“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 Wednesday morning news conference.
The union has argued that the district's safety measures fall short, including a holiday testing program, and that its COVID-19 infection data is often inaccurate. 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 than a year ago and requires a different response, particularly with a highly-vaccinated teacher population.
City officials, who've characterized the union action as an “illegal work stoppage” and said teachers that don't show up won't be paid, were also mulling legal options to force teachers back in classrooms. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city had filed an unfair labor practices complaint, but didn't elaborate.
The cancelation meant more frustration for families strained by the pandemic who would again have to make other arrangements. The disruptions follow a teachers strike in 2019.
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, many 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. District officials said student attendance at district-operated schools was 66% Monday and grew to 72% the following day.
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.”
District officials blamed the union for the situation, saying it spent about $100 million on its school safety plan, including classroom air purifiers. Masks are required in schools and 91% of CPS’ more than 47,000 staff are vaccinated, according to the district.
More than 100,000 students are vaccinated, according to the district. Since the start of the school year, about 1,800 adults and roughly 5,000 students have reported COVID-19 infections, according to district data that showed about 2,400 adults and 9,100 students were currently in quarantine due to a possible exposure.
Some classes and schools have temporarily gone remote with outbreaks this academic year. And Chicago purchased 100,000 laptops last month in anticipation of more remote instruction, but it was unclear how many students have school-issued devices. The union and parents have complained that there aren’t enough and access has been unequal. District officials sidestepped recent questions about the school-issued devices.
Associated Press writers Sara Burnett and Kathleen Foody in Chicago and Rick Callahan in Indianapolis contributed to this report.