CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools classes are canceled Thursday as the district and Chicago Teachers Union battle over in-person versus remote learning during the ongoing COVID-19 surge.
CPS locked teachers out of online classrooms Wednesday after the union Tuesday voted to move to remote learning. CTU members said they would not work in schools until Jan. 18, there’s an agreement with city and district leaders, or the city’s positivity rate, currently at 23.6 percent, falls to 10 percent.
But CPS CEO Pedro Martinez and city officials have said they want in-person learning to be the default. He and Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the teachers union is engaging in an illegal work stoppage.
Martinez said just 10 percent of the district’s teachers reported to school buildings Wednesday.
“We had no choice but to cancel classes tomorrow,” Martinez said.
Starting Friday, Martinez said principals will be able to provide in-person instruction and other academic services “as long as we have the staff in the buildings.”
Lightfoot said they want “students and our teachers and our staff back on Friday,” and teachers who don’t show up to schools will not be paid.
“We will not pay you for an unlawful strike,” Lightfoot said. “We will not pay you to abandon your post and your children at a time when they and their families need us most. It will not happen on my watch.”
It’s not clear how long the impasse could last. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Wednesday the city has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the union and officials are considering litigation to compel teachers to return to their classrooms if negotiations continue to stall.
“We’d rather resolve this at the bargaining table,” Lightfoot said. “That’s in the best interest of all concerned.”
The mayor also casted doubt on the union’s timeline for potentially returning to classrooms.
“Don’t kid yourself that it’s going to be January 18. They first told us that it would just be today. … Do we have any guarantee from them that this arbitrary date that they picked will be the date? We don’t,” Lightfoot said.
Both sides have said they don’t want long-term virtual learning, but they disagree over key points about testing and using temporary virtual learning during this surge.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey told union members on a conference call the two sides have had “substantive” talks but there’s not been enough compromise from the district yet, the Sun-Times reported.
Lightfoot said there are two major sticking points. She said they will not agree to union demands to set benchmarks for when all of CPS needs to switch back to remote learning, saying there’s no scientific basis for such a move, it jeopardizes learning and emotional health and the better strategy is to examine potential problems by individual schools.
She also said they would not agree to the union’s demands to make school-based testing opt-out instead of opt-in. Lightfoot said that would mean schools are doing “a quasi-medical procedure on children without their parents’ knowledge or consent.”
Lightfoot said CPS will “not be robbing them of that right” to opt their kids into testing.
“We are not going to launch off on some venture where we dictate to the parents that we know better than they do about whether or not their kids should get tested. We’re a slippery slope there. And then what are we going to do? Be vaccinating them without the parents’ consent? Do you think that’s a good idea. ”
CPS students returned to classes Monday after winter break. But the situation was fragile, as the CTU had warned it wanted CPS to delay the return of in-person learning since the city’s averaging more cases per day and has its highest positivity rate since the start of the pandemic.
Martinez said Tuesday CPS would cancel classes if the CTU voted to move online — which the union did later that night, with 73 percent of members who voted opting for virtual learning. That led to a last-minute scramble where the vote wasn’t announced and CPS didn’t officially inform families there wouldn’t be classes Wednesday until after 11 p.m.
Teachers trying to log on to work with students remotely Wednesday morning were locked out of the system, and some said even students were unable to access their virtual classrooms.
District leaders did not answer repeated requests for comment.
“We want to teach,” Sharkey said at a Wednesday morning news conference. “We are prepared to do that remotely starting today.”
Lightfoot said union leaders met with city officials for three hours Wednesday and urged CTU’s negotiating team to come to the table “for 8, 10, 12, 16 hours, 20 hours, whatever it takes, every single day” to hammer out a deal.
“I will not allow them to take our children hostage,” Lightfoot said. “I will not allow them to compromise the future of this generation of CPS students. That is not going to happen.”
City and district officials also have said the focus needs to be on vaccinations — not tests — as a way of protecting children and others. City data shows about 50,500 Chicago kids 17 and younger are fully vaccinated.
The district has increased safety measures during the pandemic, is encouraging vaccinations and providing testing, Martinez said Tuesday. 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.
“We all want to get back to school,” health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said. “The more we can have our schools vaccinated, the more everybody … can feel confident that these schools are even safer than they were even before vaccine was available.”
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