Chicago Teachers Union leadership said Wednesday morning that, barring a deal that would cement COVID-19 safety protocols the union is seeking, teachers would only return to in-person instruction when the current surge of cases and hospitalizations spurred by the Omicron variant subsides.
“What happens if we don’t get an agreement is the surge subsides and when the surge subsides, hopefully quickly, we’ll be back in the classroom doing in-person instruction,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said during a virtual news conference.
Sharkey said CTU leadership has set a target date of Jan. 18 for a return to in-class instruction.
But he added: “We’re going to have to assess this thing as we go along.”
Negotiations with Chicago Public Schools leadership were set to resume at 1:30 p.m., Sharkey said.
Chicago Public Schools classes were canceled Wednesday after the CTU voted to refuse in-person work because of post-holiday COVID-19 concerns.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said Tuesday 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.
The school district promised they would provide families with a new plan to continue student learning by the end of the day Wednesday.
Hellen Breeze lives in the Galewood neighborhood and is the parent of two CPS students. Breeze was adamant that taking kids out of school now is the wrong approach. Remote learning has been particularly difficult, she said, for her sixth grade daughter at Joseph Lovett Elementary School.
“I don’t like it. I would prefer my child to be in school. My child is vaccinated. She wants to be in school. she doesn’t want to be at home because it didn’t work for her before,” Breeze said.
Breeze, who is on the Lovett local school council, said she’s satisfied her daughter’s school is safe and staff are taking necessary precautions.
“Let the parents choose to see if they want their children in or out of school, not [the union],” Breeze said.
Martinez and Mayor Lori Lightfoot declined to comment Tuesday on whether the district would use the 100,000 laptops it purchased for $39 million last month to hold remote learning if the CTU action is prolonged.
The cancellation of Wednesday classes came despite a last-minute proposal from city leaders that introduced improved testing and safety measures. It 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 labor strife has disrupted CPS classes in the past 27 months.
“This is not a strike, please don’t have the parents out here thinking that we are against their children, because we’re not,” Park Manor Elementary teacher Briana Hambright-Hall said during the CTU news conference. Park Manor has been particularly hard-hit by a COVID-19 outbreak.
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 yielded 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.
“We’ve been failed by the mayor, we’ve been failed by the public health office, and teachers and the school staff have decided the only thing we have control of is whether we go into the buildings,” Sharkey said.
“If you want to get us into the schools quicker, provide testing. Do what D.C. has done, New York has done, Los Angeles has done, Cleveland has done. Do what the private school the mayor sends her own child to has done — provide a test so people are negative when they come back into the school and then set up a meaningful screening program.”
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.
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 to pause in-person learning districtwide can only be made in consultation with the Chicago Department of Public Health, 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.”
Also on Wednesday, Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) urged the Lightfoot administration to stop issuing speed camera tickets around public schools in the city until those schools reopen.
Speed camera enforcement has been a sore point with the City Council ever since March 1, when Lightfoot reduced the threshold and started issuing $35 tickets to motorists caught on speed cameras driving 6 mph to 9 mph over the speed limit.
“The law reduces speed limits around schools when children are present. As of [Tuesday] night, classes have been cancelled and parents have been encouraged to find other measures for their children,” Lopez wrote Wednesday in a letter to City Comptroller Reshma Soni.
“Maintaining the ticketing protocols while classes are cancelled would be a slap in the face to residents already grappling with a difficult situation.”
Contributing: Stefano Esposito, Fran Spielman