Lori Lightfoot Says Chicago Will Make Teachers Union Deal 'Next Day or So,' But No Details

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she and school officials hope to work out a deal soon with the Chicago Teachers Union on COVID-19 measures as one of the city's largest school districts went into its third day without classes.

During a Friday MSNBC interview, Lightfoot said she hopes "we are going to get a deal struck here in the next day or so," but did not provide more details on the talks between the district and the union.

Just two days after winter break ended for students, the Chicago Teachers Union voted to return to online learning, telling teachers not to come to schools starting Wednesday as the union negotiated with the district.

However, the district said it had no plans to go back to remote learning. The city's school leaders said remote learning only deepens racial inequalities in the largely low-income Black and Latino school district. They added that it could negatively affect students' mental health and academic performance.

The school leaders also noted that the district spent about $100 million on its COVID-19 safety plan, which included air purifiers in classrooms.

Jesse Sharkey, the union's president, said teachers should feel safe against the virus in their schools.

"We have rights to safety and we've been at the bargaining table for 20 months to secure those rights," Sharkey wrote in an email to union members.

Chicago, Illinois, school
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said officials are close to working out a deal with a teachers union after the third day of cancelled classes in one of the city's largest school districts. Here, a sign on the fence outside of Lowell Elementary School welcomes students back to school on January 5 in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

A group of parents also filed a lawsuit late Thursday trying to force teachers back into classrooms, alleging that the union's actions are an illegal strike.

The union "cannot unilaterally decide what actions should be taken to keep public schools safe, completely silencing parents' input about what is best for the health, safety, and well-being of their children," Jeffrey Schwab, an attorney for the seven parents, said in a statement.

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.

In a Thursday message to parents, Chicago leaders said classes would be canceled Friday but "in-person learning and activities may be available at a small number of schools" based on how many employees report to work. A small percentage of teachers, along with substitutes, have continued to go to schools during what the district has labeled an "illegal work stoppage."

In a public letter to district officials, the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association said the district's message blindsided school leaders who had already been assured that schools would be closed Thursday and Friday.

"As school principals, we have been doing what seems like impossible work and holding it together for our students, parents, and staff members who are already exhausted," the association said.

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."

Lightfoot previously said the city is also considering legal options to get teachers back in classrooms and that teachers who don't come to schools won't get paid. Issues on the table include more testing and metrics to trigger school closures.

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

Lightfoot accused the union of politicizing a pandemic, while Sharkey dubbed her "Lockout Lori," because teachers haven't been able to log into remote-learning systems since early Wednesday.

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.

Still, many families were frustrated by having to again make last-minute arrangements and wondered whether being out of school longer might contribute to the spread.

"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," said parent Mary Bluma, who has two children in Chicago schools.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.