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CPS classes canceled again Thursday as CTU, district fail to reach agreement

In an interview with Univision Chicago, CPS CEP Pedro Martinez said the district needs to develop a plan this week on returning to school as the city see a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Adan Meza, 29, a teacher at Benito Juarez High School, poses for a photo as he protests with other members of the Chicago Teachers Union and supporters while the union stages a car caravan protest outside City Hall in the Loop, Wednesday evening, Jan. 5, 2022
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union did not reach an agreement Wednesday to end the union’s refusal of in-person work, leaving classes canceled Thursday for the second consecutive day and uncertain to resume until next week.

And in a nearly identical repeat to the two sides’ disputes over the past 27 months, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and union leaders went on the attack when it became clear their differences wouldn’t be worked out in a single day. CTU President Jesse Sharkey dubbed the mayor “Lockout Lori” on a conference call with members because the school district blocked teachers from accessing their emails, and the mayor accused the CTU of taking “our children hostage.”

While the drama played out in front of television cameras and on virtual webinars, families were left searching for information until the evening about the prospects for school later in the week. At a City Hall news conference, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said classes would not be held Thursday although the status for Friday remains unclear.

Martinez said about 10% of teachers showed up to buildings Wednesday despite the union’s vote earlier this week to refuse in-person work, and at those particular schools there remained a possibility some “academic activities” could take place later this week if a principal chooses to hold them. Officials said they are working on some type of remote learning plan, but district-wide virtual classes were unlikely to come together quickly with very few schools having passed out laptops.

He said he was saddened by the union’s decision that led all schools to close and said the district had been looking to only pause in-person learning in classes or schools with high infection rates.

“We still believe that the right approach is not a district-wide hammer that does a brush across the entire system calling the schools unsafe — there’s no evidence to show that — and instead making sure we address individual issues at schools,” Martinez said.

Testing students for COVID-19 infections is a problem that needs to be addressed, he acknowledged. Although he has said that would be a priority since he took the CEO’s office in September, he oversaw a failed winter-break testing program that saw thousands of spoiled samples and the vast majority of at-home test kits go unreturned by CPS families.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez
Brian Rich / Sun-Times

Martinez also said the district has ordered K95 masks for children, apparently meeting one of the CTU’s demands after CPS bought 200,000 of those masks for teachers and staff.

“This is not about us trying to deny or trying to create a fight over safety procedures. It’s not about that,” he said, accusing the union of “intimidating families” into thinking schools aren’t safe when data shows otherwise.

Responding to a question about why CPS wouldn’t pivot to remote learning until an agreement with the union is reached, Martinez again said the district doesn’t have the authority to implement district-wide online classes, per state law.

Some Illinois districts, however, have moved to remote learning this week. A spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education said state education officials don’t believe remote learning is necessary unless a district isn’t implementing layered mitigation protocols such as masks, vaccines, ventilation, testing and social distancing. But if a local health department believes those systems are failing and schools aren’t safe, it can recommend closures. So in Chicago’s case, that leaves the decision in Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady’s — and effectively the mayor’s — hands.

At the news conference, Lightfoot said the city would “fight to get our kids back in in person learning.”

“We owe that to our children who suffered learning loses,” she said. “ … 100,000 children were disconnected and disengaged when we’re fully remote, 100,000 mostly Black and Brown and poor kids who weren’t learning and who we have to make up a lot of ground. …Just when we’re starting to do that, CTU pulls the rug right out from under them.”

The mayor rejected many of the union’s demands around increased testing of students for COVID-19. She said she wouldn’t require negative COVID-19 test results to attend school or implement an opt-out program that would default students to in-school testing. She said she didn’t want to “rob” parents of the right to decide for themselves whether their kids should get tested — a system that so far this school year has resulted in a small number of families opting in.

Asked to point to specific state or federal laws preventing her administration from those moves that would lead to far more wide-scale testing, as the union has demanded, Lightfoot did not. But she said “it’s basic common sense, it’s basic common decency” and said that she would be outraged as a parent if a school performed a “quasi medical experiment” on her child without her clear consent.

As to other issues on the bargaining table, the district has proposed individual schools moving 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.

Sharkey, the union president, said Wednesday he sees merit in the school-level approach. But the union has proposed a staff absence threshold closer to 20%.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union and supporters stage a car caravan protest outside City Hall in the Loop, Wednesday evening, Jan. 5, 2022.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

CTU: Current surge is ‘dangerous’

In a conference call minutes before the mayor’s press conference, Sharkey told members that the two sides held “substantive discussions” earlier in the day but union leaders “had not seen enough movement” on CPS’ proposals to satisfy the union’s demands. He said he wouldn’t get into the specifics of negotiations to protect the sensitivity of the talks.

“Ordinarily it takes quite a while to get to serious bargaining,” Sharkey told union members. “But I can say that we’ve actually gotten straight to serious bargaining. I do not think the [Board of Education] wants to see this dispute drag on. And at the heart of it is the issue about how to respond to the current surge, which we think is dangerous.”

CPS locked CTU members out of their school emails and other accounts at midnight early Wednesday to prevent remote learning, a move that led Sharkey to call the mayor “Lockout Lori.”

Earlier Wednesday, Sharkey told reporters during a virtual news conference 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. The union’s labor action calls for no in-person work until Jan. 18.

“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,” Sharkey said.

100,000 students out Monday

CPS officials have yet to release attendance figures for students this week. But Martinez, the CPS CEO, confirmed at the evening news conference that around 100,000 students were absent after an association of Chicago principals released a survey earlier in the day. The district’s 515 non-charter schools enroll about 290,000 students, meaning about 1 in 3 students were absent, although Martinez said attendance was better Tuesday.

Troy LaRaviere, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, said in a virtual media briefing Wednesday that the district has not properly planned for the post-holidays return. He blasted the “disaster” that was the district’s attempt at using COVID-19 testing as a mitigation strategy” so far which he said gave the public a peek at the inefficiency principals deal with on a daily basis.

“The mayor and our district don’t have sound strategies for using the people and resources we do have,” he said.

Citing survey responses from school administrators, LaRaviere also said about half of district schools have reported unsatisfactory cleanliness conditions. The Sun-Times reported problems with CPS’ privatized custodial services in the fall, which featured staff and families picking up mops to clean filthy schools themselves after rats and cockroaches were seen around the buildings. The district parted with its facilities chief soon after.

“The district should use this remote time to ensure the district-wide return to in-person learning is safe — testing, addressing staffing and cleanliness issues,” LaRaviere said.

City health officials have said they don’t have evidence of widespread in-school infection because they’ve implemented mitigations such as vaccination, masking and improved ventilation. And cases among students and staff have remained relatively low so far this school year.

But principals have to go to schools whether or not classes are going on, LaRaviere said, “So if you have principals saying buildings need to be closed up and something needs to be addressed ... you have to throw away your talking points and actually listen and hear what they’re trying to say to you.

“They don’t want time off, they don’t want there to be two weeks off, or two weeks remote if the district is not going to try to take concrete steps to address the problems.”

Contributing: Emmanuel Camarillo