CHICAGO (AP) – Leaders of Chicago Public Schools canceled classes Wednesday after the teachers union voted to switch to remote learning due to the surge in COVID-19 cases, the latest development in an escalating battle over pandemic safety protocols in the nation’s third-largest school district.
Chicago has rejected a districtwide return to remote instruction, saying it was disastrous for children’s learning and mental health, and the status of instruction for the rest of the week was in limbo. The union argued the district’s safety protocols are lacking and both teachers and students are vulnerable.
Students in the roughly 350,000-student district had returned to class Monday in Chicago after a two-week winter break with COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations fueled by the omicron variant at record levels. School districts nationwide have grappled with the same issue, with most opting to stay open while ramping up virus testing, tweaking protocols and making other real-time adjustments in response to the shifting pandemic.
Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said the union planned to meet Wednesday afternoon with district officials. But he said teachers don’t want to return to in-person instruction until the current omicron-driven 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 with other union officials, teachers and parents.
“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.”
The union’s action, approved by 73% of members, called for remote instruction until “cases substantially subside” or union leaders approve an agreement for safety protocols with the district. Union members were instructed to try and log into teaching systems 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 deemed the union action a “work stoppage” and said those 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.
While the union has characterized their action as a way to get better safety protocols in schools, district leaders called it an “illegal work stoppage.” 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 after-school 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% of its classrooms had more than 50% 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% 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% of its more than 47,000 staff in the district are vaccinated, according to the district.