Chicago cancels school for day 3 as virus rages on

CHICAGO – Leaders of the nation’s third largest school district have canceled classes for a third day in a row amid increasingly difficult negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union over distance learning and other safety measures COVID-19.

The union, which voted this week to return to online teaching, told teachers not to show up to schools from Wednesday during the latest wave of COVID-19 while the two sides negotiate. The move just two days after the students returned from winter vacation prompted district officials to cancel classes every day for the district’s students of around 350,000 students during negotiations, saying it was not planned to return to distance education throughout the district.

Most school districts across the country have faced the same pandemic issues, with most choosing to stay open while stepping up virus testing, fine-tuning protocols and other adjustments in response to the evolving pandemic.

In a message to parents on Thursday, Chicago officials said classes would be canceled on Friday, but “in-person learning and activities may be available in a small number of schools” depending on the number of staff. who come to schools. A small percentage of teachers, as well as substitutes, continued to report for work during what the district called an “illegal work stoppage”.

Some schools alerted parents earlier Thursday that they did not have enough staff and would not accept students in addition to offering meal pickup in the largely low-income, black and Latino neighborhood. The district said about 10% of the roughly 21,620 teachers came to work on Wednesday and Thursday it was nearly 13%.

“Our schools are the best and safest place for students during this pandemic, and we are working tirelessly to bring everyone back to class every day,” Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said in a statement Thursday evening. “We will continue to work with CTU to resolve this situation and provide you with ongoing updates throughout the week. “

Chicago school leaders have rejected a return to distance learning, saying it worsens racial inequalities and harms academic performance, mental health and attendance. District officials spent around $ 100 million on its safety plan, including air purifiers in classrooms.

In Chicago, there were few signs on Thursday that either side was softening – the district and the union both filed complaints with the state this week as negotiations continued. The issues on the table include more testing and action to trigger school closures.

The union blasted the district for not doing enough, such as botching a testing program and maintaining unreliable data on infections in schools. They called for similar demands on a security deal put in place last year after fierce debate. However, the district says the pandemic is different now than it was a year ago and requires a different response, especially as 91% of school staff are vaccinated.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot accused the union of politicizing a pandemic, while union president Jesse Sharkey nicknamed her “Lockout Lori” because teachers have not been able to log into distance learning systems since. Wednesday morning.

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

Sharkey said Lightfoot was wrong to blame the teachers.

“We have security rights and we’ve been at the negotiating table for 20 months to secure those rights,” he wrote in an email to members. “We haven’t moved the goalposts a bit; in fact, we’ve been saying the same thing for months: please work WITH us to set up comprehensive tests, work with us to vaccinate students, and work with us to establish basic guardrails. “

The district argued in a complaint to the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board that the union’s actions constituted an illegal work stoppage and requested a cease-and-desist order and the ban future illegal strikes.

The union’s complaint argued that members had the right to refuse “hazardous work assignments” and accused the district of an illegal lockout by canceling classes and banning access to distance education tools. He called on the council to order Chicago schools to allow distance education until a new safety deal is reached.

It was not clear on Thursday when the board might act, but the process could take weeks to unfold. In December 2020, the board rejected the union’s request to prevent the district from resuming in-person teaching in January 2021.

The pattern was familiar to Chicago parents. The teachers’ union has threatened to strike during contentious negotiations over school conditions for decades and last left in 2012 and 2019, when talks with the city broke down. There was also a one-day work stoppage in 2016 for unfair labor practices.

Attendance was low in schools at the start of the week with thousands of quarantined students linked to a COVID-19 case and others choosing to stay home to avoid exposure. The World Health Organization has compared the explosion in COVID-19 cases to a “tsunami”.

Yet many families were frustrated at having to make last-minute arrangements again and wondered if not being in school could be contributing to the spread.

“It’s almost contradictory because like now these kids and their parents have to find activities for the kids when they’re not in school and they’re with other kids en masse now,” said Mary Bluma, mother of three in Chicago. “So it’s almost like, oh, there’s probably a better chance they’ll 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. “

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Associated Press editors Sara Burnett, Kathleen Foody and Don Babwin, and AP videographer Teresa Crawford contributed to this report.

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Follow Sophia Tareen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sophiatareen.

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