CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools told parents across the district to keep their children home Wednesday — but said it expects schools to reopen on Monday for thousands of students despite the threat of a strike from the teachers union.
The announcement comes as the Chicago Teachers Union and the district remain deadlocked on a plan to reopen schools. With the two sides unable to reach an agreement by Tuesday, the district made the move to keep preschoolers and kids with special needs home Wednesday for virtual learning.
“This is a great disappointment,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at a press conference Tuesday. “Education absolutely is the great equalizer. Too many of our kids are falling woefully behind, leaving them disadvantaged now and into the future.”
“The district has no choice but to ask parents to keep your children home tomorrow,” CPS CEO Janice Jackson wrote to parents. “For the past three weeks, thousands of CPS students have been safely learning in person, and the union’s action will prevent these students from receiving the classroom support their parents needed and chose.”
The return to all-virtual classes on Wednesday comes three weeks into CPS’s phased reopening of schools.
Some teachers and staff began returning to the classroom in early January, over the objections of the union. But as the opening moved forward and disagreement persisted between the union and district, CTU leaders told all members Tuesday they should work from home Wednesday and prepare to strike Thursday if CPS refuses to let them continue teaching virtually.
The union is now calling for a mediator to broker an agreement with the district.
“Currently, Chicago’s schools lack access to adequate testing and tracing programs, proper PPE, necessary room ventilation and sanitization, and priority vaccination of educators and school support staff,” CTU officials said in a statement.
Despite no agreement between the two sides, Lightfoot said the district still is planning to reopen schools for in-person learning for kindergarten through eighth grade students starting Monday, Feb. 1. But with those teachers not reporting to work from their school buildings, however, it’s unclear how that plan can go forward without an agreement.
Lightfoot and Jackson also would not say whether they’d consider the union’s move a strike.
“We’re not there yet,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot and other city officials have said CPS now has three weeks of data to show that school reopening is safe. That data affirms other studies, including one by the CDC released Tuesday, that show schools do not contribute to a significant amount of coronavirus transmission.
“It’s one of the things we have the best data on now,” said Dr. Allison Arwardy, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. “We would not be moving ahead with school reopening… without reams of data that is based on the public health science.”
The union says teachers want to continue teaching remotely, since 81 percent of CPS preschool and special needs students — the students eligible to return to classrooms so far — have opted to continue to learn remotely. But teachers who have refused to show up despite a CPS mandate have been locked out of their virtual classrooms.
“We are willing to keep teaching, but CPS has said they will lock us out,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement. “There are many options that we’ve proposed to staff classrooms where children are returning without putting every single member of the school community at increased risk — including thousands of educators with families at heightened risk from COVID.”
At issue between the union and school district is increased virtual accommodations for teachers who do not have underlying health conditions, and an increased effort to vaccinate school staff. Lightfoot said the city is working on those issues, but that other city frontline workers also have a claim to vaccine access.
The city and union have been meeting on the issue of school reopening since the summer and almost daily for the last two weeks, Lightfoot said.
“I am deeply disappointed that after all this time, all these sessions, all the work … no agreement has been reached,” Lightfoot said. “This is despite three weeks of daily evidence” that schools are safe.
The teachers union contests that schools are safe, saying there have been around 60 cases of positive coronavirus cases this month alone. Asked about that Tuesday, Jackson said that figure sounded correct but she and Arwady reiterated they always expected for there to be some transmission. The key, they said, is responding quickly to help isolate or quarantine when cases do arise to prevent coronavirus from spreading any further.
Sharkey said the union wants a phased approach to bringing teachers back, essentially letting those who want to continue teaching from home do so and bringing back teachers comfortable with in-person instruction or educators who have been vaccinated.
Teachers were initially told by the district to return to classrooms Monday in advance of the Feb. 1 return of about 70,000 kindergarten through eighth-grade students. However, about 61 percent of Chicago teachers voted to approve union leadership’s plan to refuse to work at schools but continue to teach online.
The district then said teachers could return Wednesday instead, but negotiations continued Tuesday night and no resolution was in sight.
Some preschool and special needs students returned to classrooms Jan. 11 after 300 days of learning from home, but only about 19 percent of kids in those grades showed up, the district said.
In a letter to teachers, Jackson said preschool and special needs teachers should still report to work in person Wednesday and ignore the union’s advice.
“CTU’s directive is disappointing to us, as it prevents thousands of students from safely going to school as they have been for the past three weeks and as CPS and the union continue to meet every day to reach a resolution that prevents further disruption to student learning,” district leaders said in a statement.
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