CPS classes canceled Wednesday after CTU votes to refuse in-person work

The cancellation came despite a last-minute proposal from city leaders that introduced improved testing and safety measures.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez hold a news conference Tuesday evening.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez hold a news conference Tuesday evening.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools classes are canceled Wednesday as the Chicago Teachers Union voted to refuse in-person work, defying district plans because of post-holidays COVID-19 concerns.

The cancellation came despite a last-minute proposal from city leaders that introduced improved testing and safety measures but wasn’t enough to avoid upending in-person schooling for about 290,000 students at non-charter schools exactly 12 months after another CPS-CTU fight over pandemic safety measures left families in limbo for weeks.

This is the third time CPS classes are disrupted by labor strife in the past 27 months.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez sent the offer to meet the union halfway on some of its demands right before a City Hall news conference Tuesday morning, where he pleaded with the union to give his proposal a chance and asked leaders to delay a membership vote Tuesday evening. CTU leaders reviewed the proposal and met with CPS leadership through the afternoon, but an agreement was not reached and the union did not delay its vote. After those discussions, the CTU’s House of Delegates voted 555-77 to hold the membership-wide vote.

In an emailed update to members, the union said the vote would call for no in-person work until Jan. 18 or until the city’s COVID-19 wave falls below the threshold CPS set last year to trigger school closures, whichever comes first. The CTU voting window closed at 10 p.m. — the deadline extended by an hour Tuesday night after some members had technical problems with the electronic ballots. The vote passed with 73% approval, the union announced just before 11 p.m., surpassing the two-thirds of voting members needed.

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“Let us be clear. The educators of this city want to be in their classrooms with their students,” the union said in a statement announcing the vote tally, adding the decision was made “with a heavy heart and a singular focus on student and community safety.”

CPS said in a statement sent late Tuesday that all non-CTU members are required to report to work Wednesday, and principals will be on-site, but all classes, sports and activities are canceled. The school district promised they would provide families a “new plan to continue student learning” by the end of the day Wednesday.

Students can receive meals from their schools between 9 a.m. and noon, and CPS shared a list of Safe Haven sites available for child care.

A decision pause to in-person learning district-wide can only be made in consultation with the Chicago Public Health Department, CPS said.

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

At his media briefing, Martinez said “there is no evidence that our schools are unsafe.

“The amount of noise that’s out there right now, the amount of misinformation, we have so many people that are afraid, from parents to staff, because of the misinformation,” he said. Asked specifically if he meant the CTU was spreading misinformation, he wouldn’t say.

Cases, positivity rates and hospitalizations in Chicago are all at or near record highs largely because of the highly contagious Omicron variant. Breakthrough cases among the vaccinated have become more common, but the unvaccinated are more likely to suffer serious illness, Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said at the news conference.

About 69% of Chicagoans over the age of 5 are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to city records. About 92% of CPS’ 40,000 employees are fully vaccinated — including 96% of teachers — while 63% of kids age 12-17 and 23% of children age 5-11 are. The city has over 500,000 school-age children, 330,000 of them attending CPS schools.

Arwady said she remains confident schools are safe for in-person classes both at CPS and private schools and expects the city’s Omicron wave to peak sometime this month, perhaps even in the next week or two.

“But it worries me what could happen here if we go into a week, and another week and another week, and we’ve got kids out of school potentially for long periods,” Arwady said.

She said the virus is behaving like the flu in vaccinated children — though is more serious for adults and the unvaccinated. There has been a nationwide uptick in pediatric cases and hospitalizations in the Omicron wave, and in Chicago city data shows unvaccinated kids age 12-17 are behind that increase. Hospitalization rates remain low for vaccinated children in that age group and younger kids, regardless of vaccination status.

“I’m disappointed that we’re having this conversation again,” Arwady said. “Because this is one that has been answered.”

Arwady questioned why CPS should close when schools around the country and world are open. While most in Illinois remain open, major cities such as Detroit and Atlanta have temporarily moved to remote learning this week, while Los Angeles has mandated negative COVID-19 tests.

At another Tuesday evening news conference with Martinez and Arwady, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she felt like this was “groundhog day” after the past two years of labor unrest.

“It shouldn’t be that at 8 p.m. the night before school is supposed to take place, when frankly many parents are working the overnight shift, they’re going to have to scramble to make accommodations for their children tomorrow,” Lightfoot said.

“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 where needed.”

The CTU has said its members don’t feel safe because of the rapid rise in cases and a failed CPS testing plan meant to allow 150,000 students to test at home over winter break that resulted in only 11,000 usable samples.

The union has called for all staff, students, vendors and volunteers to provide a negative COVID-19 test result within 48 hours of returning to school — a measure a few districts elsewhere in the state and around the country have taken this week — and for the district to provide K95 or similar quality masks to all students and staff.

The CTU also wants to reinstate the health metric agreed to last year that would trigger districtwide closures. Under the metric — that the citywide test positivity rate is 10% or higher and that the rate has increased for the previous seven consecutive days, each day at least one-fifth higher than the week before — all CPS classes would be remote.

If those conditions aren’t met, the union would vote for remote work starting Wednesday in defiance of CPS. Martinez said remote classes wouldn’t be held, at least not Wednesday, if the vote passes. He said schools would remain open for families to drop off their children if they can’t put together child care plans, and school administrators and support staff would supervise. He said a plan would later be communicated to parents for the rest of the week if an agreement isn’t reached.

Asked several times whether the district would use the 100,000 laptops it purchased for $39 million last month to hold remote learning later this week or next week if the CTU action extends that long, Martinez and Lightfoot declined to answer, saying they wouldn’t speculate.

In his proposal Tuesday, Martinez offered to set a metric tied to student and staff infections that would trigger individual schools to close. A copy of the proposal viewed by the Sun-Times shows a school would move to remote learning if 40% or more of its teachers are absent for at least two days and if substitutes and other staff can’t fill in to get absences under 30%. An elementary school would go to online classes if half its classrooms have half their students quarantined; high schools would go remote if half their kids are quarantined.

Martinez also offered 200,000 K95 masks to staff but not students. And he said the daily online health screener and entrance temperature checks that were part of last year’s pandemic plan would again be options for principals to use but not required.

Martinez said the district would continue optional testing in all its schools for asymptomatic students and staff, committing to at least 30,000 tests per week; anyone with symptoms should seek testing at a pharmacy, clinic or other medical location. But he declined to make tests a condition of in-person attendance.

The schools chief said he recognizes many families are in fear this week — which he attributed in large part to misinformation about school safety — and said some schools were half empty Monday while others were full of kids excited to be back after the break. The district declined to release student attendance figures.

He acknowledged the surge in cases at schools before winter break but said the district acted quickly to shut down classrooms and individual schools when necessary. Martinez said teachers won’t be paid if they don’t report to work in-person and suggested make-up days may be necessary later in the year.

Given the lack of trust in the CPS-CTU partnership, Martinez said his biggest question is, “How can I guarantee parents that this is a pause and not something much longer?”

In an unrelated news conference in the afternoon at Chicago police headquarters, Lightfoot accused the CTU of playing politics in its demand for a pause to in-person learning and said she and CPS wouldn’t “give in to fear-mongering and hysteria.”

“Why on Earth, when we don’t need to pause, would we pause and risk falling back into the same old trap,” the mayor said, referring to students’ lower grades and worsening mental health during last year’s school closures.

“The worst thing we can do is shut the whole system down,” she said, predicting it would lead to “catastrophic consequences.”

President Joe Biden said in a briefing Tuesday that he wants schools to remain open despite the Omicron wave.

Contributing: Fran Spielman, Clare Spaulding

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