As Covid-19 cases surge to record levels, the 25,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is once again in a standoff with the city’s school system to increase safety measures for educators, students and communities.
After Mayor Lori Lightfoot repeatedly refused the union’s proposals for stronger Covid-19 mitigations in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) amid the fast-spreading Omicron wave, 73% of CTU members voted Tuesday night to temporarily teach remotely. In response, Lightfoot and CPS cancelled all classes Wednesday and locked educators out of online learning platforms.
“The mayor was extremely angry at the idea that people inside the schools would take action for ourselves,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. “We’ve been failed by the mayor and the public health office, and teachers and the school staff have decided the only thing we can control is whether we go into the buildings.”
Chicago’s current test positivity rate is 23.3%, the highest it’s been since the pandemic started, and a 380% increase from a month ago. About 600 children in the city are testing positive each day, and around the country, the number of children hospitalized with Covid-19 is breaking records.
The CTU is calling for students and staff to test negative at least 48 hours before returning to school buildings, and for CPS to provide KN95 or similar quality masks to all students and staff. Over the recent winter break, the school district sent 150,000 at-home testing kits to students in neighborhoods with low vaccination rates. Students and their families struggled to return the completed tests to CPS before classes resumed January 3, with test kits seen overflowing out of FedEx drop-off bins.
In the end, only 35,800 tests were returned, and just 10,800 of those could be processed. The rest were invalidated because they did not arrive within the necessary 48 hours. Of the tests that were processed, 18% came back positive. Despite this staggering rate, Mayor Lightfoot and CPS decided to move forward with in-person learning this Monday, emphasizing the protection provided by vaccines.
“Yes, we can get vaccinated. We promote vaccinations and boosters. But tell me your plan when every individual is vaccinated and boosted and Covid is still spreading,” said Taneka Griffin-Lindsey, a parent and special education classroom assistant at Park Manor Elementary School on the city’s South Side. “Knowing that a person is negative or positive before entering our buildings is how we stop it.”
A similar standoff between CPS and the union played out last year. A safety agreement was eventually reached in February 2021, but it expired in August of last year and the city has refused to extend it. Under the terms of that agreement, operations in school buildings would pause for two weeks if the citywide positivity rate increased for seven consecutive days at a rate at least 15% higher than the previous week. By that metric, schools across the city would now be closed if the agreement were still in place.
“They said the metric we agreed to would work in times just like this, and now they’re saying they don’t want to employ the metric that they created,” explained CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates.
Citing last February’s agreement, the union membership voted Tuesday to pause in-person instruction until January 18, unless the city’s test positivity rate drops below the metric previously agreed to.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez has said this week he would be willing to reinstitute similar health metrics for determining when to move to remote learning, but on a school-by-school basis, arguing there is no need to shut down the entire district.
“We want our children back in their classrooms as soon as possible and will continue working with the CTU to reach an agreement that addresses their concerns and that is in the best interest of all in our CPS community, especially our children,” Martinez told parents in a statement following the union’s vote.
Meanwhile, multiple school districts — including Cleveland, Atlanta, Newark and several Chicago suburbs—have opted to temporarily go remote for the first one to two weeks of the new year because of the Omicron wave. In large districts like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., in-person learning has resumed with strict testing requirements and strong mitigations in place.
“We want [CPS] to run a test-to-return program the way they have in other cities,” said Sharkey. “Unfortunately, right now they’re telling us they’re not willing to do that. But they haven’t told us they’re not able to do it, they’re just saying they don’t want to do it.”
CPS has received an estimated $2.8 billion in federal funds to deal with the pandemic, but the union says the city is not adequately using the money to beef up safety and increase staffing. “Where are the expenditures from the $2 billion that give our students what they need in their school communities?” Davis Gates asked. “We haven’t seen them.”
Anticipating the possibility of moving back online, CPS purchased 100,000 laptops just before the holidays. At a press conference Tuesday night, Chicago Sun-Times reporter Nader Issa asked Lightfoot and Martinez if the city planned to use the laptops to facilitate remote learning. Both officials declined to answer, saying they would “not speculate.”
While many parents are supportive of the CTU’s vote to move to remote learning given the Omicron surge and lack of testing, they are also scrambling to find daycare and supervision for children. Further, some worry about the psychological impacts of keeping children isolated at home again. “To have the rug pulled out from under them again, it’s got the potential to be catastrophic,” one CPS parent told the Chicago Tribune.
Still, with so many students and staff infected with Covid-19, some schools were already practically empty even before the CTU’s vote. At Park Manor Elementary School last month, 174 out of 250 students were in quarantine.
Union leaders say they plan to continue negotiating with the city until a new safety agreement can be reached, but would return to in-person teaching on January 18 or when the citywide test positivity rate falls to where it was before the Omicron surge, whichever happens first.
“If you want to get us back into the schools quicker, provide testing,” Sharkey said. “We’re not going to get yelled at or bullied into ignoring what makes common sense.”
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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.