CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools locked teachers out of online classrooms Wednesday morning after the Chicago Teachers Union voted to move to remote learning as COVID-19 skyrockets.
It’s not clear how long the impasse could last. Both sides have said they don’t want long-term virtual learning, but they are still negotiating, with disagreements over key points about testing and using temporary virtual learning during this surge.
In the meantime, parents were left scrambling for child care while students looked at another pandemic gap in learning.
The Chicago Teachers Union voted Tuesday night to work remotely until Jan. 18 or until 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, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said the teachers union is engaging in an illegal work stoppage.
“We want to teach,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said at a Wednesday morning news conference. “We are prepared to do that remotely starting today.”
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 virtually Wednesday morning were locked out of the system.
Negotiations between the two sides are ongoing. The CTU, CPS and city officials have an official meeting scheduled for 1:30 p.m., but they’ll talk throughout the day, Sharkey said.
Sharkey and other educators at the Wednesday morning news conference said they want increased testing of students and for in-person learning to be suspended until there are more safety precautions or until this COVID-19 surge is over.
CPS has an opt-in testing system that only a fraction of parents or guardians have approved for their kids. Members of the teachers union said the district instead needs an opt-out system — where all students would be tested regularly unless their families opted out — and needs to provide more testing supplies.
The teachers union thinks those moves could better protect teachers, school staff, students and communities as COVID-19 surges. Teachers at the news conference said they’re concerned about bringing home COVID-19 to at-risk loved ones, and some parents said they’re worried about their children being exposed to the virus through schools.
Teachers also said they’ve already been doing hybrid learning since so many classes have been quarantined due to the COVID-19 surge, which started before winter break.
And CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said many teachers are out sick or quarantining and there haven’t been enough substitutes, meaning students weren’t always learning when at school. Principals have been teaching and some classes simply have security guards watching over them, she said.
“I look at that proposal as a teacher and as a parent, and what I’m trying to understand is, how many adults need to be in the school building in order for education and supervision to be adequate?” Davis Gates said at the news conference. “We don’t have staffing. … We have a substitute shortage.
“So we don’t have enough people to cover classes, meaning we don’t have enough grownups in the building, so instruction isn’t happening. We are warehousing children in large spaces with warm bodies.”
Martinez previously said CPS has enough substitutes to cover staffing issues.
And city and district officials 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.
Martinez and Lightfoot have said CPS needs in-person learning as it’s better for students’ education and social and emotional needs. Martinez has also 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 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.
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 at a Tuesday news conference. “I wish we could all be on the same page providing accurate information to our families.”
And Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, has said in-person learning is safer for students, as there’s less risk of COVID-19 spreading in schools than in children’s homes and communities.
Sharkey and Davis Gates said they don’t want long-term remote learning. But if there’s no agreement, the union will focus on virtual learning until the surge subsides, Sharkey said.
“We don’t want to go back to last year; no one does,” Sharkey said. “We think it’s reasonable to ask for testing and safety mitigations in the current context.”
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 also marks Lightfoot’s third major dispute with the CTU since becoming mayor.
Safe Haven sites are open for child care 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday. Registration is 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.
Schools are open, though without class, as well.
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