Chicago cancels school in dispute with teachers’ union

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CHICAGO – Chicago public school officials canceled classes for Wednesday amid a clash with the teachers’ union, whose members had threatened to stay home in an attempt to force online education during a wave of coronavirus.

Union members had criticized the district’s response to the Omicron variant, which has pushed cases in the city to record levels, and said the conditions in the classrooms were dangerous. They voted on Tuesday to refuse to show up in school buildings, just two days after returning from winter vacation.

But Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the return to online education was unacceptable and unnecessary, and his administration decided to cancel classes altogether – keeping buildings open for emergency child care – rather than to return to virtual education.

“No one signs up to be a home student at the last minute,” Ms. Lightfoot said. “We cannot forget how disruptive this remote process is for parents who have to work, who cannot afford the luxury of staying at home.”

Ms Lightfoot, a Democrat, urged teachers to report for work and suggested they consider an illegal work stoppage. The Chicago Teachers Union said Tuesday night that 73% of members who voted were in favor of suspending in-person teaching.

As the highly contagious Omicron makes its appearance, so do the debates that were considered closed. After a relatively calm fall, when administrators, unions and families largely agreed that distance education was a failure, the standoff between the country’s third largest district and its union shows how quickly this political consensus can collapse.

Like other school systems, Chicago has faced a shortage of testing and a far from universal vaccination rate among students. There were a large number of staff reporting sick and widespread anxiety among just about everyone. Other districts, including Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Atlanta, are also temporarily connected, but without a public labor dispute.

“We are between a rock and a hard place – the rock being the pandemic, the anvil being an intractable and incompetent mayor,” Union vice-president Stacy Davis Gates said this week. She added: “We said a two week break so they can get together, have the right communication, put in place the necessary mitigations.”

Coronavirus cases have skyrocketed in Chicago at their highest rate since the start of the pandemic. But as in the rest of the country, vaccinated adults had lower hospitalization and death rates, while children of all ages – regardless of their vaccination status – were mostly spared the serious consequences.

Additionally, data from Chicago and elsewhere shows that school transmission of Covid-19 has been limited, with the majority of cases of teachers and students coming from outside school buildings. More than 90 percent of Chicago public school employees are fully immunized.

Yet members of the powerful Chicago Teachers Union have accused the school district of failing to adapt to Omicron and the growing threat of revolutionary infections. During the holidays, they had requested either a universal PCR test of students and staff, or a two-week transition to distance learning.

Pedro Martinez, the district director general, said on Tuesday he would be more aggressive about closing school buildings if large numbers of staff and students were infected with the coronavirus. But he opposed a district-wide shutdown, suggesting misinformation was behind the anxiety over the reopening.

He spoke of the district’s $ 100 million investment in improving building ventilation and efforts to monitor the air quality in every classroom. He said he had continued “to plead, including with the leadership of the CTU, for schools to remain open, for classes to continue”.

Dr Allison Arwady, the city’s public health commissioner, said on Tuesday she remained “extremely comfortable” with students learning inside schools.

“We have to do a risk-benefit analysis here, and at least in children we have to think of it as similar to the flu,” said Dr Arwady, explaining that Chicago has an average of seven child hospitalizations per day due to of Covid- 19.

But the district’s failed efforts to test tens of thousands of students over the winter break only added to the concerns of parents and teachers. Most of the approximately 150,000 PCR tests mailed to students were never returned. Of the approximately 40,000 tests that were mailed, a majority gave invalid results.

Mr Martinez said many families struggled to follow test instructions and he had learned an important lesson: that student testing should be done in schools to be effective.

“I wanted to reduce the level of anxiety and I’m just disappointed that I couldn’t do it,” said Martinez, who called on the federal government to address the continuing shortage of tests. Going forward, the district has committed to providing at least 30,000 screening tests per week; there are approximately 340,000 students in the system.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised schools to avoid quarantines and closures by using a protocol known as the test to stay, in which close contacts of positive virus cases perform two rapid antigen tests in one week ; only those who test positive should stay home.

But Chicago officials, like those in many cities and towns across the country, said they don’t have nearly the number of rapid tests they need.

Health commissioner Dr Arwady said the city had not received any new deliveries of rapid tests since November, despite pending orders.

She attributed the shortage of rapid tests to the federal government’s efforts to centralize the purchase and distribution of the tests, and said she expected the problem to abate soon.

“If you can afford it, I would go ahead and order home tests now,” she advised families – an added burden on parents who are waiting for news on whether their children would go to school the next day.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said her Chicago union affiliate was not to blame for the labor disputes. She asked why the country’s two largest districts, New York and Los Angeles, had been able to work with unions to set up testing programs when Chicago’s testing efforts had failed.

School closures in the event of the pandemic have helped backlash against union-affiliated Democrats in places like Virginia and New Jersey, particularly in predominantly white suburbs. But Ms Weingarten said she was not worried about the political ramifications in Chicago. The city is strongly democratic and its public school students are predominantly black and Latino.

“I worry about the children, teachers and families,” she said.

Some Chicago parents questioned the wisdom of reopening classrooms in the middle of Omicron, and Mr Martinez acknowledged that there were schools where most of the children had not been in class this week.

Nicole Perkins, a mother of three who lives on Chicago’s South Side, said it was scary sending her kids back to school.

Two of her children tested positive for the coronavirus shortly before the winter break, and she said she did not trust district safety precautions. The union vote, she said, was an act of courage.

Ms Perkins, who pays her sister to care for her children when classes are conducted remotely, said there were benefits when the children stayed in the classroom. “But these benefits,” she said, “should they cost them their lives or the long-term side effects of Covid?”

Shelley Davis, whose eldest daughter is a high school student, said that while she thought teachers’ views were important – her mother is a Chicago union member – she was hopeful the district could find a compromise to keep the children. at school.

Ms Davis, who runs a foundation, is also concerned about what students may lose socially if they return to distance learning. “It breaks my heart,” she said. “They have such a different childhood than I can imagine.”

Maria Hadden, who represents a diverse North Side neighborhood on Chicago City Council, said she was concerned about the long-term impact of repeated labor disputes and said she hoped Mr. Martinez, who is new in his role, would take a different approach than his predecessors.

Relations between the union and town hall have been extraordinarily strained for a decade, spanning the tenures of Ms Lightfoot and her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel. In 2019, months before the pandemic, teachers went on strike for 11 days and won concessions from Ms Lightfoot on salaries, class sizes and support staff. A year ago, when schools first returned to face-to-face teaching, the city and the union entered weeks of tense negotiations.

“Having these very public butt sessions is really damaging to, I think, all of Chicago’s public schools,” Ms. Hadden said. She added: “People expect us to overcome ourselves, overcome our overwhelming need to be absolutely right, or be seen as giving in to demands.”

Giulia Heyward contributed reports.

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