CHICAGO - Leaders of Chicago Public Schools canceled classes Wednesday after the teachers union voted to switch to remote learning due to the surge in COVID-19 cases, the latest development in an escalating battle over pandemic safety protocols in the nation’s third-largest school district.
Chicago has rejected a district-wide return to remote instruction, saying it was disastrous for children’s learning and mental health. But the union argued the district’s safety protocols are lacking and both teachers and students are vulnerable.
The Chicago Teachers Union’s action, approved by 73% of members, called for remote instruction until "cases substantially subside" or union leaders approve an agreement for safety protocols with the district. Union members were instructed to try and log into teaching systems Wednesday, even though the district said there would be no instruction and didn’t distribute devices to students ahead of the union votes, which were announced just before 11 p.m. Tuesday.
"This decision was made with a heavy heart and a singular focus on student and community safety," the union said in a statement.
However, district officials blamed the union for the late cancellation, saying despite safety measures, including a high teacher vaccination rate, "our teachers are not willing to report to work."
As a decision loomed, Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the union out during a press conference Tuesday evening.
"Unfortunately tonight CTU leadership is compelling its membership to harm hundreds of thousands of Chicago families who rely upon CPS for their daily needs. For their education, for their nutrition, for their safety," said Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Both the mayor and CPS officials said they are confident schools are safe for students and teachers. They said at-home learning has been devastating to children's education and mental health. Throughout the day Tuesday, they pleaded with teachers and families to listen to local health experts.
"When I think of a big city that is open right now, in what world would we close something essential like in-person education when we have seen negative effects, when our bars are open," said Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner, Chicago Department of Public Health.
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union feel not enough has been done to protect them during this omicron surge and say they have a list of demands if they’ll remain in the classroom.
"We want regular testing, we don't want the debacle of the FedEx drop boxes after Christmas. We want to make sure the ventilation in the buildings work, and that staffing is consistent and supervision is there," said Stacy Davis Gates, Chicago Teachers Union vice president.
In a last-ditch effort to meet them halfway, on Tuesday morning, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez submitted a proposal to the CTU with added safety measures, including daily screenings, temperature checks, and a commitment to provide 200,000 KN95 masks for staff to use.
"There is no evidence our schools are unsafe. There’s no widespread issues of safety in our schools," said Martinez. "I've been to our schools. Our children are wearing their masks. Why? Because they want to be there in person."
In a letter sent to families Tuesday, Martinez added: "We are sorry for this situation and want you to know we are doing everything possible to keep students in school tomorrow and beyond."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.