Chicago public school students will return to classroom Wednesday after teachers union suspends work action, mayor says

Chicago public school students will return to classroom Wednesday after teachers union suspends work action, mayor says
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Chicago teachers will be back in school Tuesday and students are scheduled to return to in-person learning on Wednesday after the Chicago Teachers Union house of delegates voted to end the teachers’ work action, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at a Monday night news conference.

Earlier, the union representing public school teachers had tweeted: “The Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates has voted tonight to suspend the Union’s remote work action while rank-and-file membership votes on the proposed agreement.”

Lightfoot said the rank-and-file vote, involving tens of thousands of teachers, will take place later this week.

More than 340,000 students had missed four days of classes since teachers voted to teach remotely and the school district responded by canceling classes.

The stalemate over Covid-19 measures exemplifies debates playing out across the country: When and how should students return to classrooms during the Omicron variant surge?

Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools, the country’s third-largest system, had said students in the district should learn in classrooms and that the district has taken steps to promote Covid-19 safety in schools.

But the union said it wanted schools to be able switch from in-person learning to virtual learning if Covid-19 absences amount to more than 25% of school staff; 30% of elementary school students; or 25% of high school students.

The mayor had said keeping students out of classrooms is “untenable” — and not just because of the difficulties of learning remotely.

Lightfoot said many single parents are unable to go to work because they have to stay home with their children. And many children rely on school meals during the week.

As of Friday, Chicago was averaging more than 5,200 new cases a day — a 16% increase over the prior week, according to the city health department’s Covid-19 tracker. The city’s Covid-19 test positivity rate had a daily average of 21.1%.

What other school districts are doing

Across the country, many school districts are still grappling with reopening after the holiday break.

In Atlanta and Cleveland, schools returned to in-person learning Monday after a week of remote learning.

But schools in Jefferson County, Kentucky, and Nashua, New Hampshire, were closed to students Monday because of staffing shortages.

Milwaukee students were supposed to return to classrooms Monday, but the school district decided to extend remote learning for another week.

In Baltimore, more than 50 public schools transitioned to virtual learning Monday because of staffing concerns and a rise in Covid-19 cases.

“Decisions are made based on having enough staff available to operate a school OR the ability to conduct COVID-19 testing,” Baltimore City Public Schools said in a written statement. No decision had been made as to when students can return to those classrooms.

In Philadelphia, 91 schools are teaching remotely this week after “Covid-related staffing challenges,” the school district said.

Los Angeles students are slated to return to classrooms Tuesday, and the school district is in the process of universal Covid-19 testing. So far, 50,000 new Covid-19 cases have been identified, and those students and staff members will have to stay home.

How the standoff began

Last Tuesday, the last day students were in classrooms, Chicago Public Schools reported 422 new Covid-19 cases among students and 271 new cases among adults — both record highs for the academic year.

That night, the Chicago Teachers Union voted to start teaching virtually. The union said inadequate Covid-19 testing and staffing contributed to unsafe school environments.

“All we are asking is that we would like our students to test negative before entering in the building,” teacher Briana Hambright-Hall said. “A two-week pause (of in-person learning) is not too much.”

In response to union’s vote to teach remotely, the school district canceled classes — reiterating its stance that children need to learn in classrooms.

CTU proposed resuming in-person teaching Tuesday, January 18, “unless (the Chicago Department of Public Health) or the State of Illinois determine that public health conditions are not safe for in-person school at the time.”

Over the weekend, Lightfoot and Martinez issued a joint statement saying union leaders were “not listening.”

“The best, safest place for kids to be is in school. Students need to be back in person as soon as possible,” the statement said. “That’s what parents want. That’s what the science supports. We will not relent.”

This isn’t the first time school has been canceled over an impasse between the teachers’ union and Lightfoot.

In 2019, the same year Lightfoot took office, more than 25,000 Chicago educators went on strike to demand more support staff, higher raises and limits on class sizes.

The 11-day strike ended when the city agreed to increase school staffing, including more school nurses and 209 more social worker positions — enough for one social worker at each school.

The deal also included more funding to reduce oversized K-12 classrooms and more funding for recruitment and training.

Families caught in the middle

While the impasse between the teachers’ union and city leaders dragged on, parents and students were in limbo.

CPS parent Michelle Egan said students and teachers needed to return to classrooms.

“Over the holiday break, we saw our teachers going on vacations and visiting families. And they absolutely should be doing that,” Egan told CNN Monday morning.

“But to return to school three days later and say that they don’t feel comfortable being in a classroom … we have to move on. We have to live our lives with this pandemic. And so we really want the teachers to get back to work.”

Halle Quezada is both a CPS teacher and parent.

“We are in a spike. There was a lot of holiday travel. A lot of teachers were quarantining, like myself,” Quezada told CNN Monday. “We need to respond to that spike.”

CPS parent Megan Hasse told CNN affiliate WBBM she agrees with the mayor and wants kids back in the classrooms. But she said families should have a choice about remote learning.

“I think that there has to be an option for both sides of this argument,” she said. “Those that want to go in person who, for their kid, that is the best option, they should be able to do that. And for those that want remote, we need to be able to provide options for them as well.”

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