Chicago schools to shut for 3rd day amid debate with union

Natalia Leichenko is visited by the family dog Coco, while she reads in her room Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022, in Chicago. Hundreds of thousands of Chicago students remained out of school for a second straight day Thursday after leaders of the nation's third-largest school district failed to resolve a deepening clash with the influential teachers union over COVID-19 safety protocols. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

By Sophia Tareen

The Associated Press

CHICAGO Leaders of the nation’s third-largest school district canceled classes for a third consecutive day amid increasingly tense negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union over remote learning and other COVID-19 safety protocols.

The union, which voted this week to revert to online instruction, told teachers to stay home starting Wednesday during the latest COVID-19 surge while both sides negotiate. The move just two days after students returned from winter break prompted district officials to cancel classes each day for students in the roughly 350,000-student district during negotiations, saying there’s no plan to return to districtwide remote instruction.

In a Thursday message to parents, district officials said classes would be canceled Friday but “in-person learning and activities may be available at a small number of schools” based on how many staff show up; a small percentage of teachers have continued to come to schools during what the district has labeled an “illegal work stoppage.”

However, the offerings would vary from school to school, and some alerted parents earlier in the day that they wouldn’t have enough staff to have children and preemptively canceled.

Chicago Public Schools, like most other districts, has rejected a districtwide return to remote learning, saying it worsens racial inequities and is detrimental to academic performance, mental health and attendance. District officials insist schools can safely remain open with protocols in place.

There was little sign Thursday that either side was softening — the district and union both filed labor complaints with the state this week. Issues on the table including more testing and metrics to trigger school closures.

School districts nationwide have confronted the same pandemic issues, with most opting to stay open while ramping up virus testing, tweaking protocols and other adjustments in response to the shifting pandemic.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot accused the union of politicizing a pandemic, while the union’s president, Jesse Sharkey, dubbed her “Lockout Lori,” because teachers haven’t been able to log into remote-learning systems since early Wednesday.

The pattern is familiar for Chicago parents in the largely Black and Latino district serving about 350,000 kids. The teachers union has threatened to strike during contentious bargaining over school conditions for decades, and last walked off the job in 2012 and 2019, when talks with the city broke down. There was also a one-day work stoppage in 2016 over unfair labor practices.

Many families were frustrated by having to again make last-minute arrangements and wondered whether being out of school might contribute to the spread.

“It’s almost contradictory because like now these kids and their parents have to find some activities for the children when they’re not in school and they’re with other kids en masse now,” said parent Mary Bluma, who has three children in Chicago schools. “So it’s almost like, oh, there’s probably a better chance they’re going to spread COVID or, you know, get sick from other kids because now we’re not in a structured environment like a classroom where there are rules in place.”

The district said roughly 10% of about 21,620 teachers came to work Wednesday and by Thursday it was nearly 13%. By Thursday afternoon, some city schools had already started notifying parents that they didn’t have enough employees to open to students Friday.

Lightfoot’s first term as mayor has been marred by three high-stakes clashes with the teachers’ union, including the 2019 strike that lasted for 11 school days and disagreement over COVID-19 safety protocols to begin the 2020 school year.

“Enough is enough,” Lightfoot said during a Thursday morning interview on MSNBC. “I’m tired of the Groundhog Day appearance of everything that goes on with the Chicago Teachers Union leadership. We need partnership, we don’t need conflict. “

Sharkey said Lightfoot is wrong to blame teachers.

“We have rights to safety and we’ve been at the bargaining table for 20 months to secure those rights,” he wrote in an email to members. “We haven’t shifted the goal posts one bit; in fact, we’ve been saying the same thing for months: Please, work WITH us to set up comprehensive testing, work with us to vaccinate students, and work with us to establish basic guard rails.”

The district argued in a complaint to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board that the union’s actions are an illegal work stoppage, and sought a cease and desist order and a ban on future illegal strikes.

The union’s complaint argued members have a right to refuse “hazardous work assignments” and accused the district of an illegal lockout by canceling classes and barring access to remote-teaching tools. It asked the board to order Chicago schools to allow remote instruction until a new safety agreement is reached.

It was unclear Thursday when the board may act, but the process could take weeks to play out.

In December 2020, the board rejected the union’s request to block the district from resuming in-person instruction in January 2021.