Chicago Cancels School Wednesday, to Dock Teachers’ Pay as Union Votes Against In-Person Learning; CTU Accuses Mayor of Prioritizing ‘Free Child Care’ for Business Class

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks in front of a blue background.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the teachers union’s vote against in-person learning would “harm hundreds of thousands of Chicago families.” (Getty Images)

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Updated January 6

Chicago Public Schools will keep schools closed for most students Friday as negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union continue. After initially inviting students back, the district updated that announcement, telling parents not to bring their children to school unless their principal gives the OK. 

“A small number of schools MAY be able to offer in-person activities for students if enough staff are reporting to work,” the announcement said.

While nearly 4,700 teachers, substitutes and other staff members turned up for work on Thursday —up from 3,985 Wednesday — that’s still just a fraction of the district’s workforce of over 33,500 employees. 

Meanwhile, the union, which voted to work remotely until the 18th, advised members to continue trying to log in to their district accounts — even though the district has locked them out — and to document any attempts to work. Union members also gathered at a high school and began distributing flyers about COVID-19 testing to homes in the neighborhood.

The district on Thursday released data showing a significant spike in cases among students and staff members following the holidays, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Wednesday night that the city still wants to take a “surgical” approach to closing schools. 

Both the district and the union have accused each other of unfair labor practices. The union’s complaint argues that the district has changed health and safety practices without an agreement with the union, while the district’s complaint said the union’s action amounts to an “illegal work stoppage” and violates the collective bargaining agreement.

Back in school for just two days, Chicago officials canceled classes Wednesday after almost three-fourths of teachers union members voted in favor of returning to remote learning. 

The union said the break from in-person school would last two weeks, unless positive COVID-19 cases declined or an agreement was reached over safety precautions.

“We believe that our city’s classrooms are where our students should be,” said the union’s statement. “Regrettably, the mayor and her [Chicago Public Schools] leadership have put the safety and vibrancy of our students and their educators in jeopardy.”

But the district called the vote a work stoppage and said teachers would lose pay if they don’t show up on Wednesday. Parents were told to expect an update on how their children would continue learning by the end of the day.

“To be clear, what CTU is seeking cannot be counted as an instructional day under state law and guidance,” the district said in a statement.

As districts nationally try to contain further outbreaks due to the Omicron variant, and parents once again scramble to adjust to abrupt shifts to remote learning, the standoff between the district and the union is a major test for CEO Pedro Martinez, who took over leadership of the district in late September. On Tuesday, he appealed to the union and the community, calling for a plan triggering school closures that better “represents the times that we’re in” and reflects that vaccines are now available for staff and students. He argues that cases increase when students are out of school and that closing schools would only increase community spread. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said during a Tuesday night press conference that returning to remote learning would “harm hundreds of thousands of Chicago families.” 

Lightfoot compared the situation to the movie “Groundhog Day.” “There is no basis in the data, the science, or common sense for us to shut an entire system down when we can surgically do this at a school level,” she said.

On Tuesday, the district presented the union with a “school-by-school” approach to closures linked to levels of COVID-related absenteeism among teachers and students. The proposal included distributing 200,000 KN95 masks for staff, reinstating temperature checks and providing on-site testing at all schools.

The union turned that down. 

The union is relying on February 2021 criteria that calls for a 14-day pause on in-person learning when rates are increasing for seven days in a row or reach other thresholds.

As of Monday, the district had a 10 percent positivity rate. The week after Christmas, almost 36,000 tests were completed, with 18 percent of staff and students testing positive.

CTU spokesman Chris Geovanis said there’s also “movement” toward asking for negative tests from students and requiring them to test unless parents opt out. 

“They’re just testing the same kids over and over again,” she said, “We want them to do the testing that is actually designed to [identify] COVID and keep people safe.”

She added that while some schools implement all COVID mitigation strategies, not all do. Geovanis said the union doesn’t hold Martinez responsible for the lack of agreement and instead faults Lightfoot, who has control over the school district.

“It says nothing about Pedro. He’s not the boss,” ​​Geovanis said, accusing the mayor of wanting to appease parents in wealthier parts of the city. “She doesn’t want to piss off the business class who relies on CPS for free child care.”

Pedro Martinez

She added that the union recognizes that parents have “real child care issues” and that teachers would return to school if they could “safely work in person.”

The union is planning a Wednesday afternoon “car caravan” to draw attention to its demands.

‘Flip of a switch’

Some parents seemed unsurprised by the latest development. 

“I’m not afraid. It is what it is,” said Yolanda Williams, whose daughter Kaylynn Walker is in ninth grade at Michelle Clark Magnet High School. “She’s good with her computer stuff. I just have to really make sure she gets up.”

But Kristin Pollock, the chief of development and external affairs at Kids First Chicago, said she thinks only about half of the district’s students will likely make a smooth transition back to virtual instruction.

“While Chicago families have more experience with remote learning and are better equipped with internet, equipment and know-how, compared to 2020-2021, most schools are not ready to pivot at the flip of a switch back to remote learning,” she said. 

The advocacy group informally polled parents in its network over the weekend. Over half did not want to return to school considering current COVID rates, Pollock said. But in a letter to the editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Karonda Locust, a parent in the network, said kids would suffer from a retreat from in-school learning

“For me, the worst thing we can do is go back to remote learning, even for a short amount of time, given the harm it has caused our children and in many cases, entire families,” she wrote.

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