Pedro Martinez, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, speaks at a press conference promoting COVID-19 vaccination in Chicago communities of color at City Hall on Nov. 16, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools classes will be canceled Wednesday if the district’s teachers union votes to do remote learning, the district’s CEO said Tuesday.

CPS returned to in-person learning Monday with the end of winter break. That move has been mired in controversy, with the Chicago Teachers Union and some parents saying learning should be done remotely as Chicago faces its highest-ever COVID-19 surge, while district and city leaders have said in-person learning is safest for children.

CTU members will vote Tuesday night on whether they’ll refuse to return to work in-person beginning Wednesday. The union has suggested its teachers could teach remotely, as was done during the start of the pandemic.

But should the CTU vote to work remotely, CPS will cancel classes, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said. Asked about if students would be able to log into virtual classrooms, Martinez said the district would cancel complete instruction.

But negotiations are ongoing, Martinez said: CPS sent the CTU another proposal to bargain over, and Martinez has asked the union’s leaders to delay the vote.

“We are still committed to trying to get an agreement; I feel [in-person learning is] a much more practical approach. Frankly, it’s a lot fairer for our families,” Martinez said. “If none of that works … I will have to cancel classes tomorrow. It doesn’t mean the schools will be closed. The schools will be open.

“And then we will have a plan specifically for parents that will come out tomorrow in a very timely fashion about what the plan forward is.”

Martinez, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady have repeatedly said in-person learning is safer for students, as there’s less risk of COVID-19 spread in schools than in children’s homes and communities. They’ve also said remote learning at the start of the pandemic took a heavy toll on children’s mental and emotional health and education.

At Tuesday’s news conference, Martinez said he’s had to battle misinformation that’s made school communities anxious about the return to in-person learning. He said it’s not practical to make a district-wide decision on doing virtual learning when fears about COVID-19 vary widely across neighborhoods and some students are vaccinated.

The district has increased safety measures during the pandemic, is encouraging vaccinations and providing testing, Martinez said. CPS will hold 33 mobile vaccination events this month, it has school-based vaccine clinics open and 91 percent of its staff are fully vaccinated, he said.

The CEO also said the best way for CPS to respond to the pandemic is through the school level, which is only possible when students are in class.

“COVID is the enemy; not the CTU, not us,” Martinez said. “I wish we could all be on the same page providing accurate information to our families.”

The district will move classrooms and whole schools online if they see a significant number of COVID-19 cases and are in communities that are at higher risk, Martinez has previously said, though the district has not provided benchmarks what would trigger a move to virtual learning.

Children remain at lower risk from the virus. But as cases have skyrocketed in Chicago in recent weeks, the number of children being hospitalized with COVID-19 has risen. An average of seven Chicago children are being hospitalized per day with COVID-19.

Martinez and other officials have said the best way for parents to protect their kids from COVID-19 is to get them vaccinated.

All children 5 and older are now eligible to get the shots, and they’ve been shown to be highly effective at preventing severe illness and death. Officials have said they also offer protection against the Omicron variant that has driven up cases in recent weeks, though a booster shot is key to being as protect as possible against Omicron.

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