Classes were canceled Wednesday in Chicago, the country’s third-largest school district, as union leaders and city officials failed to reach an agreement over how to operate schools safely amid the surge in coronavirus cases – an impasse cemented with a late-night vote from Chicago Teachers Union that could lock students out of in-person learning until mid-January.
“Right now going into school puts us at risk, puts our students and families at risk,” union President Jesse Sharkey said in a press conference Wednesday morning. “That’s the simple truth of the matter. This is a virus that’s raging through the city.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot rebuffed the claims by union representatives that the entire district should operate remotely until the rapid spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant subsides or until city officials enforce more stringent safety protocols.
“I cannot stand here in good conscience as the mayor of this city,” she said, “and tell you that it makes sense to shut down an entire system. If I thought it did, if I heard that from our public health experts, then I would be the first one to tell you that’s what we must do.”
The union had asked Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez to bless a proposal that would allow for a switch to virtual learning if 20% or more of school staff was in isolation or quarantine due to a COVID-19 infection or due to having a close contact who was infected, or when a safety committee warranted the switch due to high levels of infection or a failure to adhere to safety protocols.
But Lightfoot and Martinez did not concede to the union’s demands. Instead, they offered a proposal to pivot to remote learning if 40% or more of teachers are absent for two days due to COVID-19 and those absences remain above 30% with the use of substitutes. They said they would also approve remote learning if half of an elementary school’s classes have 50% or more of students in quarantine, and if 50% or more of a high school’s students are in quarantine.
The offer also included 200,000 KN95 masks for staff, the continuation of optional testing in all schools for asymptomatic students and staff to the tune of at least 30,000 tests per week.
The tender stood in stark contrast to the safety protocols the union was hoping to secure. And on Tuesday evening, 73% of the union’s 25,000 members voted in favor of working remotely until Jan. 18 or until the current omicron-driven wave of infections falls below last year’s threshold for school closures.
“What we are seeing is a situation where we have been failed by the mayor, failed by the public health office, and teachers and school staff have decided the only thing we can control is whether we go into the buildings,” Sharkey said. “We’re saying we want to teach and we want to do what’s right for students and we are prepared to do that remotely starting today. If you want to get us back into buildings, provide testing.”
Last school year, Chicago’s threshold for a district-wide school closure was a citywide test positivity rate of 10% or higher and a seven-day consecutive increase in the rate. The citywide positive rate currently stands at 23% – up from 17% last Friday.
The standoff leaves some 340,000 students and their families without a clear understanding of what to expect over the next several days.
While schools will be open to receive students and provide meals and health care on Wednesday, classes are canceled. Moving forward, it’s still unclear whether the district will allow remote learning to occur – a move that requires special approval from the state – or whether a full-on work stoppage will occur while negotiations will continue.
The impasse, which union leaders and city officials have been trying to avoid through on-again, off-again negotiations since the summer, marked the third major dispute between the Chicago Teachers Union and Lightfoot since the onset of the pandemic.
Earlier on Tuesday, after spending the day negotiating with union officials, Lightfoot said she was opposed to pausing in-person learning and lamented the academic, social and emotional loss incurred when the city shuttered its schools at the onset of the pandemic and the more than 100,000 students who were completely disengaged.
“Why on Earth, when we don’t need to pause, would we pause and risk falling back into the same old trap?” she asked.
“The worst thing we can do is shut the entire system down,” she said. “We need to be focused on working together to get children vaccinated. What is different now from previous surges is that we have vaccinated.”
But given how highly transmissible the omicron variant is, and the major testing hiccups experienced by the district – in which the vast majority of the COVID-19 tests given to parents ahead of winter break weren’t able to be analyzed due to shopping issues related to weather and holiday traffic – union members said holding in-person classes during the surge was irresponsible.
On Tuesday evening, Lightfoot and Martinez held an additional press conference prior to the union’s vote during which they roasted the union for leaving parents scrambling to find alternative child care plans.
“We shouldn’t be at this place again,” she said. “We should be at the table, we should be bargaining in good faith. We should get to a resolution. But what we should not be doing is allowing CTU leadership to shut down an entire school system.”
The mayor argued that there is no reason to shut down the entire district when they have enough data to understand which communities are being most impacted by the omicron surge.
“Now in the time of the vaccine, how individual schools are experiencing this surge in omicron is not universal,” Lightfoot said. “It is different. And the deciding factor is what is the level of vaccination on a school-by-school basis. We have the tools because of the vaccine to be very strategic, to be surgical, in analyzing where we need to shift a classroom or maybe even a whole school to remote learning.”
“What I know is that there is no basis in the data, science or common sense for us to shut an entire system down when we can do this surgically and do this at a school level where needed,” she said.
Chicago Health Commissioner Allison Arwady agreed, even though the city has had difficulty in boosting vaccination rates among children. As it stands, 34 % of 5- to 11-year-olds have at least one dose and 62% of 12- to 17-year-olds have had two doses.
Even still, Arwady emphasized that research still shows that schools do not drive the spread of the virus.
“When I think about a city that is open right now, in what world would we think to close something essential like in-person education when we have seen the negative effects of that when our bars remain open?” Arwady asked. “No public health leaders in the world at this point think that that makes sense.”
“Across the country there are many places with higher positivities, including New York City, and their schools are open,” she added.
Negotiations are set to resume Wednesday afternoon.