CHICAGO — Public school officials in Chicago canceled classes for Wednesday amid a clash with the teachers’ union, whose members had threatened to stay home in a bid to force instruction online during a coronavirus surge.
Union members had criticized the district’s response to the Omicron variant, which has pushed cases in the city to record levels, and said conditions in classrooms were unsafe. On Tuesday, two days after returning to school from winter break they voted to refuse to report to schools.
But Mayor Lori Lightfoot said reverting to online schooling was unacceptable and unnecessary, and her administration decided to call off class altogether — keeping the buildings open for emergency child care — rather than return to virtual instruction.
“Nobody signs up for being a home-schooler at the last minute,” Ms. Lightfoot said. “We can’t forget about how disruptive that remote process is to individual parents who have to work, who can’t afford the luxury of staying home.”
Ms. Lightfoot was a Democrat and urged teachers not to miss work. She also suggested that they might be considering an illegal strike. Late Tuesday night, Chicago Teachers Union stated that 73% of members who voted supported pausing in person instruction.
Omicron, the highly contagious Omicron, raises its head and reopens old debates. After a relatively calm fall, when administrators, unions and families largely agreed that remote schooling was a nonstarter, the brinkmanship between the nation’s third-largest district and its union exposes just how quickly that political consensus can fall away.
Chicago, like other school systems, has had to deal with a shortage in tests and a low level of vaccinations among students. There were many staff members who called in sick and anxiety among nearly everyone. Other districts, such as those in Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Cleveland, have also gone online temporarily. However, there has not been a labor dispute.
“We are between a rock and a hard place — the rock being the pandemic, the hard place being an intractable, incompetent mayor,” Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s vice president, said this week. She added, “We said a two-week pause so they could get themselves together, have the proper communication, put in the necessary mitigations.”
In Chicago, the number of Coronavirus cases has risen to its highest level since the outbreak. But as in the rest of the country, vaccinated adults have had lower rates of hospitalization and death, while children of all ages — regardless of vaccination status — have overwhelmingly been spared severe outcomes.
Data from Chicago and other cities shows that Covid-19 transmission to students and teachers is very limited. More than 90% of Chicago Public Schools employees have been fully vaccinated.
Chicago Teachers Union, a powerful union of teachers, has accused the school district, despite its best efforts, of failing to adapt to Omicron’s growing threat of breakthrough infections. They had requested universal P.C.R. Students and staff were tested or the possibility of a two-week transition into remote learning.
Pedro Martinez, the district’s chief executive, said on Tuesday that he would be more aggressive about shutting down school buildings if large numbers of staff and students there had coronavirus infections. He was against a complete shutdown of the district, arguing that misinformation was to blame for anxiety over reopening.
He spoke of the district’s $100 million investment in improving building ventilation, and efforts to monitor air quality in each classroom. He said he had continued “to plead, including with C.T.U. leadership, to keep the schools open, to keep the classes going.”
Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s public health commissioner, said on Tuesday that she remained “extremely comfortable” with students learning inside schools.
“We’ve got to do risk-benefit analysis here, and at least among children, we have to think of this as similar to flu,” Dr. Arwady said, explaining that Chicago is averaging seven child hospitalizations per day because of Covid-19.
But the district’s bungled effort to test tens of thousands of students over winter break only added to parents’ and teachers’ concerns. The majority of the approximately 150,000 mail-in P.C.R. Tests given to students were never returned. A majority of the more than 40,000 tests sent in were invalid.
Martinez stated that many families had difficulty following test instructions. He had learned an important lesson: student testing should only be conducted at schools.
“I wanted to reduce the anxiety level, and I’m just disappointed that I couldn’t achieve that,” said Mr. Martinez, who called on the federal government to address the persistent shortages of tests. The district has now committed to providing at most 30,000 screening tests per semaine; approximately 340,000 students are in the system.
Schools are advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid closings and quarantines. They should use a protocol called test-to-stay. This protocol requires close contacts with positive virus cases to take two rapid antigen testing within a week. Only those who are positive must stay home.
Officials in Chicago, as in many other cities and towns, claimed that they didn’t have enough rapid tests.
Dr. Arwady, health commissioner, stated that the city had not received any new rapid tests shipments since November, despite having outstanding orders.
She attributed the rapid test shortage to the federal government’s efforts to centralize the purchasing and distribution of the tests, and said she expected the problem to abate soon.
The Coronavirus Pandemic – Key Facts to Know
The global surge. The coronavirus 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. Governments are now focusing more on spreading vaccinations than limiting its spread.
“If you’ve got the means, I would go ahead and order home tests right now,” she advised families — a further burden on parents awaiting news on whether their children would be attending school the following day.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said her union’s Chicago affiliate was not to blame for the labor strife. She asked why the nation’s two larger districts, New York City and Los Angeles, had been able to collaborate with unions to set up testing programs, while Chicago’s testing effort had failed.
Pandemic school closures have led to backlash against union affiliated Democrats in New Jersey and Virginia, especially in the majority-white suburbs. Ms. Weingarten stated that she was not concerned about the political consequences in Chicago. The city is heavily Democratic. Its public school students are primarily Black and Latino.
“I’m worried about it for the kids and for the teachers and for families,” she said.
Some parents in Chicago have raised concerns about the wisdom of reopening schools amid Omicron. Mr. Martinez acknowledged that there were schools where children weren’t in class this week.
Nicole Perkins, a mother of three who lives on Chicago’s South Side, said it had been scary to send her children back to school.
Two of her children tested positive for the coronavirus shortly before winter break, and she said she did not trust the district’s safety precautions. She described the union vote as an act of courage.
Ms. Perkins’ sister pays her to look after her children remotely. However, she said that children are more comfortable in classrooms. “But should those benefits,” she said, “come at costing them their lives possibly or the long-term side effects of Covid?”
Shelley Davis, whose oldest daughter is a high school senior, said that while she thought teachers’ perspectives were important — her mother is a member of the Chicago union — she hoped the district could find some compromise to keep children in school.
Ms. Davis runs a foundation and is also concerned about what students might lose socially if remote learning is returned. “It kind of breaks my heart,” she said. “They’re having such a different childhood than what I can imagine.”
Maria Hadden, who represents a diverse North Side district on the Chicago City Council, expressed concern about the long term effects of the ongoing labor strife. She also said that she hoped Mr. Martinez, who is a new player in his role, would adopt a different approach from his predecessors.
The relationship between City Hall, the union, and City Hall has been extremely difficult for a decade. This includes both Ms. Lightfoot’s tenure and that of her predecessor Rahm Emanuel. In 2019, months prior to the pandemics, teachers went on strike for 11 consecutive days and won concessions from Ms. Lightfoot on their pay, class sizes, support staff, and other issues. When schools returned to in-person instruction a year ago, tensions erupted between the city and union.
“Having these very public head-butting sessions is really detrimental for, I think, Chicago Public Schools overall,” Ms. Hadden said. She added, “People expect us to get over ourselves, to get over our really strong need to be absolutely right or to not be seen as giving into demands.”
Giulia HeywardContributed reporting
Source: NY Times