By SOPHIA TAREEN
CHICAGO (AP) – School leaders in Chicago canceled classes for the second day in a row after failing to reach an agreement Wednesday with teachers’ unions on distance learning and other COVID-19 safety protocols in the country’s third-largest school district.
The Chicago Teachers Union, which voted to return to online tuition, asked teachers to stay home Wednesday during the recent COVID-19 rise while both sides negotiate, prompting district officials to cancel classes two days after students returned from the winter holidays. Chicago Public Schools, like most other districts, has refused to return to distance learning, saying it exacerbated racial inequalities and was detrimental to academic performance, mental health and participation. District officials insist schools can safely remain open with protocols in place.
School districts across the country have struggled with the same problems, with most choosing to remain open while increasing virus testing, adjusting protocols and other adjustments in response to the changing pandemic. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who repeated President Joe Biden a day earlier, said Wednesday that the country is better equipped now to ensure schools can safely open “including in Chicago,” while former President Donald Trump called the closures ” destructive. “
District and union officials negotiated behind closed doors Wednesday afternoon, but failed to reach an agreement. Issues include measurements that would trigger school closures and several COVID-19 tests. For example, school leaders only support distance learning at the class and school level when there are outbreaks, as has been the case this year, versus a district-wide shift to distance learning that the union has supported.
“We know that our schools are safe. Yes. Do we have challenges across individual schools? Absolutely. Are we responding? Absolutely, “Schools CEO Pedro Martinez told reporters Wednesday night.
He said the situation with the union left “no choice but to cancel” on Thursday, something that will affect about 350,000 students.
Martinez said students may be able to start returning to schools on Friday for services like tutoring or counseling depending on how many staff show up. Buildings remained open Wednesday for pickup meals in the predominantly low-income and Black and Latino school districts.
Union president Jesse Sharkey said teachers do not want to return to personal instruction until the current increase has subsided.
“We would rather be in our classes and teach, we would rather have the schools open. What we are saying, however, is that right now we are in the middle of a big wave, it is breaking all records and the hospitals are full, ”he said during a press conference on Wednesday morning.
The union has argued that the district’s security measures fall short, including a holiday test program, and that its COVID-19 infection data is often inaccurate. They have sought claims similar to a security agreement introduced last year after a heated debate. However, the district says the pandemic is different now than it was a year ago and requires a different response, especially with a highly-vaccinated teacher population.
City officials, who have characterized the union action as an “illegal work stoppage” and said teachers who do not show up will not be paid, also considered legal options to force teachers back into classrooms. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city had filed a complaint about unfair work practices, but did not elaborate.
The cancellation meant more frustration for families strained by the pandemic, which in turn had to make other arrangements. The disruptions follow a teachers’ strike in 2019.
Parent Danelda Craig, who spoke at the union’s press conference, said she was “surprised” by the city’s public health commissioner’s proposal that people could wear two masks to improve protection. Craig said most kids struggle with one.
“We want them to go to school,” she said. “What we do not want is COVID with it.”
Still, many schools reported low attendance this week, with students either in necessary isolation or staying home voluntarily to avoid exposure during the omicron-driven increase. Infections and hospitalizations are at record levels nationwide, including in Chicago, which reported 4,775 average daily cases, up from less than 1,000 a month ago. District officials said student attendance at district-run schools was 66% Monday and grew to 72% the following day.
Phillip Cantor, a science teacher at North-Grand High School on the West Side, said his freshman and senior classes were about half empty earlier in the week as his email was filled with warnings about students being forced to stay out on due to COVID exposure. More than a dozen teachers were also out, and there was a substitute available, so other teachers and staff helped monitor their classrooms, he said.
Cantor said it was difficult to vote for Wednesday’s remote action because the lack of laptops and Internet access made it likely that all of his students could not turn up at night. But he called school days like those after the winter break “completely unsustainable” and risky.
“I’m not really worried about my own health, but I have students who have lost several family members in this pandemic,” Cantor said. “There have been many COVID-related traumas in society and I do not want to see any more.”
District officials blamed the union for the situation, saying it spent about $ 100 million on its school security plan, including classroom air purifiers. Masks are required in schools, and 91% of CPS ‘more than 47,000 employees are vaccinated, according to the district.
According to the district, more than 100,000 students have been vaccinated. Since the start of the school year, about 1,800 adults and about 5,000 students have reported COVID-19 infections, according to district data, which showed that about 2,400 adults and 9,100 students were currently in quarantine due to a possible exposure.
Some classes and schools have been temporarily removed with outbreaks in this academic year. And Chicago bought 100,000 laptops last month in anticipation of more distance learning, but it was unclear how many students have school-issued devices. The union and parents have complained that there is not enough and access has been unequal. District officials circumvented the latest issues regarding the school-issued units.
Associated Press writers Sara Burnett and Kathleen Foody of Chicago and Rick Callahan of Indianapolis contributed to this report.
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