Chicago Public Schools will cancel classes for students Wednesday if members of the Chicago Teachers Union vote to work fully remotely amid growing concerns over skyrocketing COVID-19 cases across the city, school officials said Tuesday morning.
Chicago Teachers Union delegates are set to vote Tuesday evening on a labor action that would see its 25,000 members work fully remotely beginning Wednesday. A decision is likely to come before 8 p.m.
If that measure is approved, Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said he will have no choice but to cancel classes.
“I have to be responsible, not knowing who will be showing up to the buildings,” Martinez said during a City Hall news conference Tuesday. “We will have a plan specifically for parents that will come out for parents tomorrow in a very timely fashion about what the path forward is.”
School buildings will remain open if classes are canceled, Martinez said.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday afternoon called the union’s proposed labor action an “illegal work stoppage,” which could lead to “catastrophic consequences” for students and their families.
The mayor, long at odds with the teachers union, explictly ruled out pausing in-person instruction for two weeks, and said union leaders were playing politics with students' education and mental health. When the COVID-19 pandemic first swept Chicago in March 2020, Lightfoot refused to close schools to stop the spread of COVID-19, only to be overruled by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. The governor said Monday he would not act to close schools during the current surge.
“The worst thing we can do is shut the entire system down,” she said, noting that she’s heard of parents who lost their jobs because they had to stay home with their children the last time CPS went remote. “If we pause, what do we say to those parents who can’t afford to hire someone to come in and watch their kids, who can’t ship their kids off to some other place? What do we say to those students who are already struggling?”
Lightfoot instead said CPS and the CTU need to jointly focus their efforts on making sure students and their families get vaccinated, saying that’s the best strategy to make sure schools can remain open and safe.
The city’s COVID-19 test positivity rate is 23.6%, up from 13.6% a week ago, the highest it has been since the first wave of the pandemic peaked in Chicago in April 2020, according to data from the Chicago Department of Public Health.
More than 110 people have been hospitalized with COVID-19 every day during the past week in Chicago, forcing hospitals to postpone non-emergency surgeries and other procedures to care for the influx of patients.
“We are very much in the omicron surge,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. “The news is not good.”
Union officials have been sounding the alarm for months about the surge of COVID-19 cases in Chicago and in schools, and urged Martinez and Arwady to do more to protect students and educators.
The CTU has asked the district to increase regular testing, provide masks to all students and staff, provide a “major increase” in vaccinations at schools and require those who’ve had COVID-19 to get a negative test before returning to school.
The union also sought a two-week operational pause until after Martin Luther King Day, but said that proposal has been rejected.
Despite the surge that shows no sign of peaking, both Martinez and Arwady said Tuesday it remains safe for Chicago students to attend classes in person because students are required to wear masks, vaccines are widely available for students older than 5 as well as teachers and staff members and kept apart where possible.
In addition, Arwady said COVID-19 is nearly always less serious for young children than adults, likening it to the flu.
Lightfoot, who tapped Martinez to lead the Chicago Public Schools in late September, has repeatedly said schools should remain open because remote learning did not work for most students and hurt many students’ mental health.
Arwady said she was “extremely comfortable” with children continuing in-person education during the surge of COVID-19 driven by the omicron variant.
“We are not yet recovered from the negative effects that we saw from so many kids trying to learn remotely, and it’s my job to think about health broadly,” Arwady said.
Before the school year began in September, Lightfoot refused calls from union leaders to sign an agreement that would detail metrics to be used to determine when individual schools or the district would switch to remote learning.
Martinez said Tuesday that was not a mistake, and repeatedly decried what he called “misinformation” that was making many Chicago parents fear it was unsafe to send their children to school.
In an attempt to avert a vote Tuesday by union delegates requiring all members to work remotely starting Wednesday, Martinez unveiled a new offer to the union during the news conference that would set rules for each school to transition to remote learning based on the number of teachers and students out sick.
Per the district, a school could go remote if any of the following conditions are met:
— At least 40% of its teachers are absent for two straight days due to a confirmed COVID-19 case
— At least half of the students in at least half of the classrooms in an elementary school are forced to isolate or quarantine
— At least 50% of high school students are forced to isolate or quarantine
The proposal also offers increased contact tracing capability, approximately 200,000 KN95 masks for staff and reinstituting health screeners and temperature checks at schools, Martinez said.
In response to those steps, the CTU on Twitter said: "We are meeting with the mayor's bargaining team today at 1:30. This counterproposal was shared with us eight minutes prior to this press conference. Before today, there had been silence from CPS bargaining since Dec. 30."
The vote scheduled for Tuesday comes nearly a year after union delegates approved a similar measure calling for remote work when CPS first began reopening schools to in-person learning during the pandemic.
The teachers union threatened a strike last year, though it eventually came to an agreement with the city over safety protocols and other issues. Union officials have not yet threatened to strike during the current negotiations.