Chicago Schools Accused of Restricting Online Teacher Access After Union Votes to Go Remote

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) canceled classes on Wednesday and are being accused of restricting access to teacher portals after the teachers' union voted in favor of remote learning amid a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the Omicron variant.

The third-largest school district in the nation rejected a return to remote learning, but the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted on Tuesday to return to online learning with 73 percent approval. After canceling classes, CPS is now accused of locking teachers out of the school's online learning system.

"We are being inundated with calls and emails this morning from educators who attempted to log into their platforms to connect with their students and teach remotely, and safely, but are being locked out by Mayor Lightfoot," the CTU posted on Twitter.

Many teachers are posting their frustrations online with the hashtag #LoriLockout, in reference to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her previous conflicts with the union.

"Half of the middle school is in quarantine. More than half of my 5th graders are out sick," one teacher wrote on Twitter. "I voted to work remotely because my school is not safe. I want to teach today, but CPS locked me out. [The CTU] didn't call a strike or a work stoppage, we called for safety."

"Ready to teach, provide specialized instruction to diverse learners, draft IEPs, and communicate with families," another teacher posted, "but [Lightfoot, Chicago Public Schools chief executive officer Pedro Martinez, and CPS] has locked me out. They are responsible for my students not receiving their legally entitled services today."

District officials have called the union's action an "illegal work stoppage," but teachers say that they fear for the safety of their students and themselves with the increasing COVID cases.

"We'd rather be in our classes teaching, we'd rather have the schools open," CTU President Jesse Sharkey said during a Wednesday news conference. "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. What happens if we don't get an agreement is that the surge subsides, and when the surge subsides we'll be back in the classrooms."

Newsweek has reached out to the CTU for comment.

CPS Masks
Above, a sign on the fence outside of Lowell Elementary School asks students, staff and visitors to wear a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on January 5, 2022, in Chicago. After voting to return to virtual learning, members of the Chicago Teachers Union are accusing the district of restricting their online access. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Union members were instructed to try and log into teaching systems on Wednesday, even though the district said there would be no instruction and didn't distribute devices to students ahead of the union votes, which were announced just before 11 p.m. Tuesday.

District officials blamed the union for the late cancellation, saying despite safety measures, including a high teacher vaccination rate, "our teachers are not willing to report to work."

"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.

District leaders said a plan to "continue student learning" would come later Wednesday. School officials said teachers who did not report to schools Wednesday would not be compensated. Last year during a similar debate, the district punished teachers who did not come to schools.

Keyonna Payton, a teacher at Park Manor Elementary School who also chairs its safety committee, said she taught remotely Monday and Tuesday because most of her students were at home on quarantine.

Payton said she is vaccinated and boosted, and she has a child who attends classes in the district who is also vaccinated, but she's fearful of the variant spreading to her family.

"I'm doing my part to try to protect my children. However, I am afraid of this virus and variant because of how fast it is moving and spreading," she said during a Wednesday news conference. "I am afraid because I have a husband, I have a young child and I have a 91-year-old grandmother with underlying health conditions and issues."

Contentious issues in the district include metrics that would trigger school closures. The district proposed guidelines for individual school closures, saying safety measures like required masks, availability of vaccines and improved ventilation make schools among the safest places for kids to be. But the union has proposed metrics for districtwide closure, citing risks to students and teachers.

A fierce battle took place last January over similar issues causing a bumpy start to the district's return to in-person instruction after first going remote in March 2020.

Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said buildings would remain open for administrators, staff and "essential services" but not instruction for students in the district that is largely low income and Black and Latino. District officials said schools would offer food service from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and COVID-19 testing would continue as scheduled, but afterschool activities would be canceled. The district also provided a list of city sites with available daycare.

In response to union concerns, the district said it has provided 200,000 KN95 masks to teachers, would allow schools to bring back daily health screening questions for students and building visitors that were required last academic year, and would spell out metrics for closing individual schools. For instance, the district said it would switch to remote learning at an elementary school if 50 percent of its classrooms had more than 50 percent of its students instructed to isolate or quarantine.

The union, with roughly 25,000 members, had sought the same metrics to close schools from an agreement last year, which expired before the new school year started. That includes a districtwide two-week pause on in-person learning if the citywide COVID-19 test positivity rate increases for seven consecutive days, for instance.

Union leaders said more safety protocols were needed and that the COVID-19 surge was causing staffing shortages. The district said roughly 82 percent of its roughly 21,600 teachers reported to work Monday, which was lower than usual, but that classes were covered by substitute teachers and other staff.

District officials said student attendance for the week was not yet available.

Roughly 100,000 students and 91 percent of its more than 47,000 staff in the district are vaccinated, according to the district.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

CPS Welcome
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union are accusing Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Lori Lightfoot of restricting their access in retaliation for voting to return to remote learning amid a COVID-19 surge. Above, a sign on the fence outside of Lowell Elementary School welcomes students on January 5, 2022, in Chicago. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images