Chicago Students Remain Home as Teachers Union, School District Negotiate COVID Measures

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) notified parents on Thursday night that classes would continue to be canceled on Friday due to the ongoing dispute between the city's government and the Chicago Teacher's Union (CTU).

The CTU voted on Tuesday to revert to remote learning due to the surge in COVID-19 cases, accusing the CPS of not providing substantial protection to teachers and students. As the conflict continues, parents are divided over the decision to return online.

"It's almost contradictory because like now these kids and their parents have to find some activities for the children when they're not in school and they're with other kids en masse now," mother of two Mary Bluma said.

Bluma told the Associated Press that reverting to remote learning is doing a disservice because classrooms are regulated and structured environments, unlike other activities prompted by online learning.

However, some parents disagree with this approach, as Newsweek reported that they want to put their child's safety over putting them in a classroom.

"The fact that you all don't have remote options for students who [sic] parents don't want to send them back is mind blowing to me," Valencia Reasnover wrote on Facebook. "There's more substitutes than teachers, these schools are not being cleaned properly, and some parents are sending their kids to school sick and all. I'm so over CPS!"

Meanwhile, the CTU will continue to provide outreach to local neighborhoods amid the class cancelations. CTU President Jesse Sharkey posted on Friday morning that the union will be sponsoring a COVID canvassing campaign similar to one they conducted on Thursday.

"We will be canvassing at schools throughout the city today, continuing to connect with the families who entrust their children to us," Sharkey wrote. "Each and every day, hundreds of thousands of families send their children to our classrooms, and we need to make sure that they understand what our collective action is about."

The message also struck back at claims that the ongoing actions by the union are considered an illegal strike.

"We know the mayor lies, a practice that has unfortunately rolled downhill to the CPS CEO who serves her," Sharkey continued. "They continue to falsely claim that we're engaging in an illegal strike, when we want to teach but cannot because they've locked us out."

Chicago Mural
Classes were canceled for the third straight day on Friday as tensions between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union continue to escalate. Above, a sign on the door 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. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

School districts nationwide have confronted the same pandemic issues, with most opting to stay open while ramping up virus testing, tweaking protocols and other adjustments 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.

Some schools preemptively alerted parents earlier Thursday that they didn't have enough staff and wouldn't accept students aside from offering meal pickup in the largely low-income and Black and Latino district. The district said roughly 10 percent of about 21,620 teachers came to work Wednesday and by Thursday it was nearly 13 percent.

"Our schools are the best, safest place for students to be during this pandemic, and we are working tirelessly to get everyone back in class every day," Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said in a statement Thursday evening. "We will continue working with CTU to resolve this situation and will provide you with ongoing updates as the week continues."

Chicago's school leaders have rejected a return to remote learning, saying it worsens racial inequities and is detrimental to academic performance, mental health and attendance. District officials have spent about $100 million on a safety plan, including air purifiers in classrooms.

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 than a year ago and requires a different response, particularly since 91 percent of school staff is vaccinated.

The union's complaint argued members have a right to refuse "hazardous work assignments" and accused the district of an illegal lockout by canceling classes and barring access to remote-teaching tools. It asked the board to order Chicago schools to allow remote instruction until a new safety agreement is reached.

It was unclear Thursday when the board may act, but the process could take weeks to play out. In December of 2020, the board rejected the union's request to block the district from resuming in-person instruction in January of 2021.

The teachers union has threatened to strike during contentious bargaining over school conditions for decades, and last walked off the job in 2012 and 2019, when talks with the city broke down. There was also a one-day work stoppage in 2016 over unfair labor practices.

Attendance was low in schools earlier this week with thousands of students in quarantine related to COVID-19 cases and others opting to stay home to avoid exposure. The World Health Organization likened the explosion of COVID-19 cases worldwide to a "tsunami." CPS reported 433 student infections on Tuesday, its highest daily total, according to district data.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Teachers Strike Chicago Public Schools Closure COVID
Classes were canceled for the third straight day on Friday as tensions between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union continue to escalate. Above, Chicago Public School teachers, parents and students protest in the neighborhood of Mayor Lori Lightfoot on September 13, 2021, in Chicago. Scott Olson/Getty

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