CHICAGO — Parents across Chicago raced to find child care on Wednesday morning after jarring news: Classes in the nation’s third-largest public school district were canceled. The teachers’ union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration had failed to agree on how to keep schools open during an Omicron-fueled virus surge.
Millions have been infected by the Omicron variant, a highly contagious virus that has spread throughout the country. Chicago is the worst example of an unpredicted and acrimonious school return. In Chicago, 73 percent voted to cease reporting to work after only two days back at school following winter break. The city responded by calling off school altogether, refusing the teachers’ call for remote instruction. District officials stated that classes would be cancelled on Thursday if no agreement was reached by Wednesday night.
The abrupt pause in academic calendar, rooted from years of enmity among the Chicago Teachers Union (City Hall), jumbled plans to accommodate hundreds of thousands of students. It also posed another major test to Ms. Lightfoot, a Democrat whose tenure was marked by labor strife and a rise in homicides.
“If they are in class and Covid is rampaging, that’s a problem. If they are not there and out on the streets, that’s a problem,” said Tamar Manasseh, who leads an anti-violence group in the city, and who said she was looking into ways to help children with nowhere to go during the day. “This has put us in an untenable situation.”
Ms. Lightfoot’s disagreements with Chicago Teachers Union date back at a strike in early months of her term. She stated in an interview that the two parties remained far apart during negotiations. Ms. Lightfoot indicated that she planned to sue the union. On Monday, the city filed an unfair labor practices complaint. The school district opened its doors to distribute meals on Wednesday and published a list listing places where parents can get emergency care.
“The consequences of the union acting like this time and time again are profound,” Ms. Lightfoot said. She added, “You think about the consequences for the families to be faced with the hostage choice of either going to work or taking care of their kids and home-schooling — no parent should be put in that position.”
Chicago has been experiencing a steady increase in the number of crises. Record-breaking numbers of Coronavirus cases have been reported in Chicago. Over the weekend, Chicago Police Department reported that 800 people had been killed in 2021, more than any year in recent years. Parents of more than 300,000. schoolchildren were informed that classes would not be held on Wednesday after 11 p.m. Tuesday.
Jesse Sharkey, the union president, said an increase of cases in the school system and the onslaught of Omicron, which causes milder illness than other variants but frequent breakthrough infections, had heightened members’ concern. He demanded that all students be tested before classes reopen and that surveillance testing be increased after. The district had implemented an optional testing plan during winter break. However, most of the 150,000 P.C.R.s were not returned. The majority of the tests given to students were not returned and some produced invalid results.
“If you want to get us back into the schools quicker, provide testing,” he said.
Mr. Sharkey and Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s vice president, also criticized the mayor for her approach to negotiations and for her repeated public criticisms of the union. Members of Ms. Lightfoot’s administration have defended the school system’s efforts to make classrooms safe and have emphasized that children rarely face severe outcomes from Covid-19.
“The mayor wants to fight when we should be working,” Ms. Davis Gates said. “She’s fighting us instead of the virus. I don’t understand it.”
She said the mayor’s “her-way-or-the-highway” leadership style had made matters worse. “The mayor, bless her heart, she doesn’t understand partnership and collaboration,” Ms. Davis Gates said.
Tonya Patterson, a bank teller, has few options after the standoff. Ms. Patterson, a bank teller, was among a handful of parents who dropped a child off at Ellington Elementary on the city’s West Side, where employees who were not part of the teachers’ job action were providing emergency child care.
Ms. Patterson blamed both sides of the discord. She was already too late to find a babysitter after she found out that classes had been cancelled.
“I understand they want to be safe, but I have to work,” Ms. Patterson said. “I don’t understand why they are so special.”
Many people expressed concern that children would not be able to attend school in person, especially at a time where coronavirus cases continue to rise, and when hospitalizations are also increasing. In the face of increasing cases, districts in Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Cleveland have switched to remote instruction. Larger districts, including those in New York and Miami have maintained in-person instruction. Chicago is the only city to have seen a public labor dispute of this magnitude.
At a West Side grocery store on Wednesday morning, Karen Washington had ventured out in the frigid weather with her 6-year-old granddaughter, a first grader, because the girl’s parents were working. Ms. Washington said she supported the teachers’ decision.
“Kids don’t know how to social distance,” Ms. Washington said. “They play and get close and take off their masks.”
Union members asked for better masks, greater testing and clearer rules to close schools affected by outbreaks.
Officials from the city insist that schools are safe and that a shutdown across the entire district will only harm struggling families. Pedro Martinez, the district’s chief executive, suggested on Tuesday that misinformation was causing most of the anxiety. Ms. Lightfoot said the union’s position also overlooked the academic and social challenges many children faced when not in school.
“Are they going to put up the money to pay for the tutors to deal with the challenges that our students are facing?” Ms. Lightfoot said. “Are they going to put forth the effort to help with the social-emotional consequences of our kids being disconnected from their social network, from extracurricular activity and all of the cascading consequences?
The relationship between Chicago Teachers Union, City Hall has been extremely tense for a decade. This spans the tenures Ms. Lightfoot and Rahm Emanuel. In 2019, just months before the pandemic, 11 days of strikes were held by teachers who sought concessions from Ms. Lightfoot regarding pay, class sizes, and support staff. One year ago, when schools began to offer in-person instruction, tensions flared between the city of New York and the union.
Ms. Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor who had never held elective office, won all 50 of the city’s wards in 2019. She became the first Black woman to lead the nation’s third-largest city after campaigning as an outsider on promises to invest in neighborhoods and root out corruption. But much of her agenda was quickly overshadowed by the pandemic and struggles with public employee unions, including the Fraternal Order of Police, which fought her on a requirement to report vaccination status, and the teachers’ union, with which she has repeatedly clashed.
The Coronavirus Pandemic – Key Facts to Know
The global surge. The virus is spreading faster than ever at the start of 2022, but the last days of 2021 brought the encouraging news that the Omicron variant produces less severe illness than earlier waves. Therefore, governments are focusing more attention on expanding vaccination rather than limiting spread.
Chicago Teachers Union is an extraordinary power and active in local politics. It calls for more investment in schools, and regularly weighs in on racial injustice and policing issues.
“At the end of the day, we have a two-party system in Chicago: We have the regular Democratic Party, the Republican Party is almost nonexistent, then we have the Chicago Teachers Union,” said Paul Vallas, who led Chicago Public Schools in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2019.
Mr. Vallas, a Democrat who supports expanding charter schools, urged Ms. Lightfoot not to give into the union’s requests. He expressed concern about the long-term effects of the labor disputes and work stoppages.
“They keep on making demands, she keeps on satisfying their demands, and then they make more demands,” Mr. Vallas said.
A vast majority of districts in the country remain open, and President Biden said this week that schools should use leftover federal funds from last year’s stimulus package to continue in-person instruction despite the rise of the Omicron variant.
“He wants schools to be open,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Wednesday when asked about the dispute in Chicago. “We know they can open safely and we’re here to help make that happen.” She added, “This includes schools everywhere, including in Chicago.”
Chicagoans, however, said they were not convinced that Omicron had been adequately addressed by the district. Ja’Mal Green, an activist who used to be a candidate for mayor and now lives in Chicago’s South Side, stated that he kept his son out of kindergarten because he didn’t believe the district had sufficient virus precautions.
Mr. Green praised the union’s actions, and said he worried about the convergence of the pandemic, street violence and educational disruption in the city.
“The mayor really has a political beef with the union and doesn’t want to come to any type of compromise because she wants to beat them over the head for the strikes and the things that have happened in the past,” said Mr. Green, who has frequently criticized Ms. Lightfoot.
Alderman Daniel La Spata, who supports the union’s requests, said he had heard from several parents who agreed with the teachers’ demands but were struggling with the uncertainty of when and how classes would be held.
“They want testing. They want vaccination. They want to know that the classrooms are safe and healthy,” said Mr. La Spata, who represents an area west and northwest of downtown. “They also want stability. They want to know what is going to be happening in the children’s lives from day to day.”
Teachers gathered in large numbers outside Union Park on Wednesday afternoon as negotiations were continuing. They planned to rent a caravan for their cars.
Christine Dussault, special-education teacher, Ravenswood Elementary, stated that there have been problems with contact trace and protective equipment for years and that it can be difficult to get students wearing masks. Jennifer Friedhart, a Beaubien Elementary seventh-grade teacher, stated that teachers are in a difficult situation and need more testing.
“I don’t want to teach remote, but I don’t want to teach when it’s unsafe,” she said. “Right now I feel like it’s unsafe. It’s scary.”
Zolan Kanno-YoungsWashington, DC – Contributed reporting
Source: NY Times