CHICAGO — Classes are canceled at Chicago Public Schools Wednesday after teachers voted to stop in-person instruction amid the city’s COVID-19 surge.
It’s unclear when classes will resume, remotely or in-person. Chicago Teachers Union members voted to refuse to work in-person until Jan. 18 or until the city’s positivity rate falls below 10 percent, a metric CPS set last year for shutting down schools, according to a source and the Sun-Times. Chicago’s positivity rate is at 23.6 percent, up from 13.6 percent the week prior as of Tuesday. Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said she does not expect rates to drop until at least mid-January.
The move to refuse to work in-person at schools was approved by 73 percent of voting teachers union members Tuesday night. Union officials did not provide a timeline when they announced the vote tally, saying instead the action would be in place until COVID-19 cases drop or they come to a reopening agreement with Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
District officials and Lightfoot, however, said districtwide remote instruction is a non-starter and vowed to continue negotiations with the union. Lightfoot said at a Tuesday night news conference that teachers should report to their classroom Wednesday — regardless of the vote — or will be placed on no-pay status.
This is the second straight winter in which in-person learning has been temporarily called off because of disputes between the district and teachers union.
“It feels like Groundhog Day that we are here again … after everything that we’ve been through in the last two years with CTU leadership,” Lightfoot said.
CTU leaders said in a statement they made the decision to return to remote learning “with a heavy heart and a singular focus on student and community safety.”
“Let us be clear. The educators of this city want to be in their classrooms with their students. We believe that our city’s classrooms are where our students should be. Regrettably, the Mayor and her CPS leadership have put the safety and vibrancy of our students and their educators in jeopardy,” union leaders said.
SEIU Local 73 members, which include special education classroom assistants, custodians, security officers and bus aides, also will refuse to work in school buildings as long as CTU is working remotely, a source said.
After-school activities, sports and other events also will be cancelled, district leaders told parents Tuesday. School buildings will still be open for essential services like scheduled COVID-19 testing and vaccines, and meals, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said. Principals will be on site and food service will be available 9 a.m.- 12 p.m. Wednesday at all schools for students, according to a district statement.
Safe Haven sites will be open for child care 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. Wednesday. Registration will be available on site, and parents and guardians must accompany their child at the time of registration, district leaders said. A list of those Safe Haven sites is here.
CPS students returned to school buildings Monday after winter break, intensifying the clash between district and union leaders about school safety.
Teachers have pushed to reinstate remote learning as the Omicron variant drives up coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Lightfoot, Arwady and Martinez have insisted on in-person instruction, saying kids are safer in school and virtual learning sets students back in their learning.
Children remain at lower risk from the virus and those who are unvaccinated remain most vulnerable. But as cases have skyrocketed in Chicago in recent weeks, the number of children being hospitalized with COVID-19 has risen, as well.
Before the vote, district officials said in a statement stopping in-person teaching “would cause profound harm to children’s learning and health and be another damaging blow to the well being of our students and their families.” CPS leaders also said a district-wide shutdown could accelerate community spread of COVID-19, and force parents and guardians to scramble for childcare with fewer health precautions.
Lightfoot and Arwady reiterated Tuesday that schools are safe and the urgency should be on getting kids vaccinated.
“There’s no reason to shut down the entire system, particularly given the catastrophic consequences that will flow,” Lightfoot said. “Achievement gaps are real and they are affecting kids of color at an exponential rate. So, anybody who’s talking about, ‘Why don’t we just pause?’ This isn’t college. This isn’t some other business where you’ve got adults who can fully function without the need of support. We’re talking about 5-year-olds. … We don’t need to go back to that moment [of remote learning] because we have vaccine. The thing we need to do is get people vaccinated. That’s where we should focus.”
Arwady also defended keeping schools open, saying cities and countries around the world with higher COVID-19 numbers are still opting for in-person instruction.
“In what world would we close something essential like in-person education, when we have seen the negative effects of that, when our bars remain open? No public health experts in the world at this point think that makes sense,” Arwady said.
The union amplified its concerns after efforts to test tens of thousands of students before classes resumed did not work as planned.
The district sent 150,000 COVID-19 tests sent to families in areas of the city most impacted by the pandemic, and recommended that kids take them over the holidays before returning to school. But after pictures circulated on social media showing drop-off sites overflowing with boxes of completed tests, CPS officials extended the deadline.
Of the 35,817 CPS staff and student tests completed between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1, 1,975 were positive and 24,986 — or 69 percent — of tests were invalid, according to CPS’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Several parents received notice the tests they submitted may not be processed in the required 48-hour timeframe because of weather and holiday-related shipping issues. Tests that arrive to the lab too late yield “unsatisfactory results” and can’t be completed, according to a district email.
Parent Zanelda Archer said at a Monday press conference she was among those who received notice that their students’ COVID-19 tests were unsatisfactory.
“It’s very confusing how we took our time out to bring the children to comply with CPS and we got no results,” Archer said. “How can I allow my children to come back and they don’t even have a negative or … positive result?”
Some school districts in other major cities, including Detroit, Atlanta and Cleveland, have delayed reopening or opted to start school with remote learning in hopes of waiting out the latest COVID-19 surge.
CPS leaders said they are evaluating conditions school by school to assess whether remote learning is necessary. District officials said Tuesday schools will switch back to virtual learning based on teacher or student absences.
- Teacher absences: 40 percent or more of a school’s classroom teachers are absent for two consecutive days because of the teachers’ documented positive COVID-19 cases, and the school-wide teacher absence rate due to documented positive COVID-19 cases remains at or above 30 percent with the use of substitutes or internal staff.
- Student absences:
- Elementary Schools: 50 percent of classrooms have more than 50 percent of students instructed to isolate/quarantine.
- High Schools: more than 50 percent of the total student population has been instructed to isolate/quarantine.
Staff at schools that go fully remote must work from their school buildings, as long as they’ve not been required to isolate or quarantine. Schools will restart in-person learning after five to 10 school days unless otherwise instructed by the Chicago Department of Public Health.
Similar issues last year forced delays in CPS’ plan to reopen schools after a year of remote learning.
CPS started the school year in January 2021 with a hybrid plan, allowing students to opt in or out of the classroom while teachers were required to work from their buildings. Many students who initially chose in-person learning changed their minds, and far fewer students came to classrooms than expected.
Leading up to the first day of class, many teachers who were recalled refused to show up to school buildings, while others protested the plan by working outside in 27-degree weather. The district responded by locking teachers out of their virtual classrooms.
The teachers’ union then voted to work remotely, defying CPS orders, and pledged to strike if the district blocked teachers from their virtual teaching platforms. The standoff forced CPS to keep students home for remote learning for two weeks until the two sides reached a deal Feb. 10. to reopen schools for preschoolers and kids with special needs.