Video: Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates discusses the potential action on “Chicago Tonight.” (Produced by Leslie Hurtado)
As Chicago Public Schools students and staff returned Monday from winter break amid an ongoing spike in COVID-19 cases, members of the Chicago Teachers Union are planning a vote that could lead to teachers refusing to work in-person later this week.
The CTU’s membership and House of Delegates will vote this week to decide whether to continue working in-person or to begin working remotely as of Wednesday as concerns about student and teacher safety grow.
“For the life of me I don’t know why this is so hard,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said of the union's negotiations with CPS during a press conference Monday morning outside Park Manor Elementary. “I am so pissed off that we have to continuously fight for the basic necessities, the basic mitigations … this makes no sense.”
According to WBEZ, which first reported the news Sunday, rank-and-file CTU members will vote Tuesday on whether they want to work virtually beginning Wednesday. That vote will be followed by a similar vote among the union’s House of Delegates at its meeting Tuesday afternoon.
Monday marked the first day of classes following the district’s two-week winter break. But during that time, COVID-19 metrics have risen dramatically in Chicago and beyond, driven by new cases of the omicron variant.
Union officials have been sounding the alarm for months, claiming CPS is not doing enough to protect students and educators from the virus inside schools. They have also repeatedly called on the city to provide a publicly-available metric that can be used to determine when individual schools or the district as a whole must be moved to remote learning.
CPS distributed around 150,000 at-home testing kits to students and their families and “strongly” encouraged its entire student population to get tested before returning from winter break. But, according to the CTU, many parents over the weekend received word that their tests could not be processed properly due to delays.
The Chicago Department of Public Health has not yet updated its COVID-19 dashboard Monday, but the most recent available data from Dec. 30 shows cases had jumped 42% in the previous week, with the city now averaging nearly 4,000 new cases per day. Chicago’s positivity rate had also nearly doubled in that week, jumping from 8.9% to 17.2%.
That’s the highest that rate has been since May 2020.
With COVID-19 cases surging across the country, dozens of U.S. colleges — including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Chicago — have already announced they’re moving classes online again for at least the first week or so of the semester, and some warn it could stretch longer if the wave of infection doesn’t subside soon.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and district officials have maintained that schools remain the safest place for students, even as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez told “Chicago Tonight” last week that there have consistently been fewer cases in its schools than in the community. But he did acknowledge that he expects a rise in the number of cases in schools following winter break.
While Martinez didn’t provide specific metrics that would lead to a shutdown, he said individual schools with lower vaccination rates among students have been given the ability to move to remote learning if they see cases increasing.
Last month, CDPH Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said that although some individual CPS schools may need to move to remote learning, she was “confident” the district as a whole would not be forced to halt in-person classes. When she made those comments, the city was averaging fewer than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases per day and had a positivity rate of 4.4%.
Asked Monday if she thought Lightfoot or CPS would let teachers walk out, Gates said “You have to ask them.”
A CPS spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the union’s proposed action Monday.
Speaking on CNBC Monday morning, Lightfoot did not address the potential walkout, but instead cited the “devastating effects of remote learning” and said her goal is that Chicago schools “never shut down again.”
“Fundamentally we know our schools are safe,” she said, “our schools are not the source of significant spread, the issue is community spread. But we need to keep our kids in school, which is what we’re going to do.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.