CHICAGO — Chicago public school officials canceled classes Wednesday amid a clash with the teachers’ union, whose members have threatened to stay home in a bid to enforce online instructions during the coronavirus surge.
Union members have criticized the district’s response to the Omicron variant, which has driven cases in the city to record levels, and said conditions in classrooms are unsafe. They voted on Tuesday to refuse to come to school premises, just two days after they returned from winter break.
But Mayor Lori Lightfoot said a return to online education was unacceptable and unnecessary, and her management decided to scrap segregation entirely — keeping buildings open for emergency child care — instead of returning to virtual education.
“No one registered for being a home student at the last minute,” said Ms. Lightfoot. “We can’t forget how confusing this remote process can be for single parents who have to work, who can’t afford the luxury of staying at home.”
Ms Lightfoot, a Democrat, urged teachers to come to work and suggested they were considering stopping illegally. The Chicago Teachers’ Union said late Tuesday night that 73 percent of its voting members favor a pause over in-person guidance.
With highly contagious Omicron rearing its head, so are discussions that have been deemed a foregone conclusion. After a relatively quiet fall, when officials, unions and families largely agreed that distance education was not working, the brinkmanship between the country’s third-largest region and its federation reveals just how quickly that political consensus can fall apart.
Like other school systems, Chicago has had to contend with a testing shortage, and far from a universal vaccination rate among students. A large number of employees were calling in sick, and anxiety spread among almost everyone. Other areas, including Cleveland, Milwaukee and Atlanta, also went online temporarily, but without a general labor dispute.
“We are between a rock and a hard place — the rock is the pestilence, and the hard place is for a mayor to be tough and incompetent,” union vice president Stacy Davis Gates said this week. She added, “We said a two-week pause so they could meet each other, get the appropriate connections, and put in the necessary mitigations.”
Coronavirus cases in Chicago have risen to their highest rate since the pandemic began. But as in the rest of the country, vaccinated adults had lower rates of hospitalization and death, while children of all ages—regardless of vaccination status—were largely relieved of serious outcomes.
In addition, data from Chicago and elsewhere shows that transmission of Covid-19 within the school has been limited, with the majority of cases of teachers and students originating outside school buildings. More than 90 percent of Chicago public school employees are fully vaccinated.
However, members of the powerful Chicago teachers’ union accused the school district of failing to adapt to Omicron, and the growing threat of hacking infections. During the holiday break, they requested either a comprehensive PCR test for students and staff or a two-week transition to distance learning.
Pedro Martinez, the district’s chief executive, said Tuesday that he would be bolder about closing school buildings if a large number of staff and students there were infected with the coronavirus. But he declined a district-wide shutdown, suggesting that disinformation was the root cause of concern about reopening.
He spoke of the district’s $100 million investment in improving the building’s ventilation, and efforts to monitor air quality each semester. He said he continued “to appeal, including to the leadership of the CTU, to keep schools open, to keep classes going.”
Dr. Alison Arwady, the city’s public health commissioner, said Tuesday that she remains “very comfortable” with students learning inside the schools.
“We have to do a risk-benefit analysis here, and at least among children, we have to think of this as being similar to influenza,” Dr. Arwady said, explaining that Chicago is receiving an average of seven children a day due to Covid-19.
But the district’s unsuccessful efforts to test tens of thousands of students during the winter break have raised concerns for parents and teachers. Most of the approximately 150,000 PCR tests given to students were not returned. Of the 40,000 or so tests mailed in, the majority yielded invalid results.
Mr. Martinez said many families had trouble following test instructions, and he learned an important lesson: Student testing must be conducted in schools for it to be effective.
“I wanted to reduce the level of anxiety, and I’m disappointed that I couldn’t make it,” said Mr. Martinez, who has called on the federal government to address the persistent shortage of testing. Going forward, the district has committed to providing at least 30,000 screening tests per week; There are about 340,000 students in the system.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised schools to avoid quarantine and closure using a protocol known as survival testing, in which two rapid antigen tests are given within a week of close contacts of positive virus cases; Only those who test positive should stay at home.
But officials in Chicago, like those in many cities and towns across the country, said they don’t have nearly as many rapid tests as they need.
Health Commissioner Dr. Arwady said the city had not received new shipments of express checks since November despite pending orders.
She attributed the lack of rapid tests to the federal government’s efforts to centralize the procurement and distribution of tests, and said she expected the problem to recede soon.
Coronavirus pandemic: essential things to know
global boom. The coronavirus is spreading faster than ever at the start of 2022, but the final days of 2021 brought the encouraging news that the Omicron variant is producing less severe disease than previous waves. As such, governments are placing more emphasis on expanding vaccination rather than limiting its spread.
“If you have the means, I’ll go ahead and order home tests right now” — an added burden for parents waiting for news about whether their children will go to school the next day, she advised.
Randy Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said her union’s Chicago branch is not to blame for the labor conflict. She asked why the country’s two largest counties, New York City and Los Angeles, were able to collaborate with unions to set up testing programs, while testing efforts in Chicago failed.
Epidemic school closures have contributed to the backlash against union-affiliated Democrats in places like Virginia and New Jersey, particularly in predominantly white suburbs. But Ms. Weingarten said she was not worried about the political fallout in Chicago. The city is heavily democratic, and its public school students are predominantly black and Latino.
“I’m worried about that for the kids, the teachers, the families,” she said.
Some parents in Chicago have questioned the wisdom of reopening classrooms amid Omicron, and Mr. Martinez acknowledged there are schools where most children weren’t in class this week.
Nicole Perkins, a mother of three who lives on Chicago’s South Side, said it was intimidating to send her children back to school.
Two of her children tested positive for coronavirus shortly before the winter break, and she said she did not trust safety precautions in the area. She said the union vote was an act of courage.
Ms. Perkins, who pays her sister to look after her children when teaching is done remotely, said there are benefits when the children remain in the classroom. “But should these benefits come at the cost of their lives or the long-term side effects of Covid?” she said.
Shelley Davis, whose eldest daughter was a high school student, said that while she believed teachers’ views were important — her mother is a Chicago union member — she hoped the district would find some compromise to keep children in school.
Ms Davis, who runs an institution, is also concerned about what students might lose socially if they return to distance learning. “It kind of breaks my heart,” she said. “They are having a different childhood than I can imagine.”
Maria Haden, who represents a diverse Northside wing of Chicago City Council, said she was concerned about the long-term impact of the recurring labor dispute and said she hoped Mr. Martinez, who is new to the position, would take a different approach than his predecessors.
Relations between the Federation and City Council were extraordinarily tense for a decade, spanning through the periods of Mrs. Lightfoot and her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel. In 2019, months before the outbreak of the pandemic, teachers went on strike for 11 days and extracted concessions from Ms Lightfoot regarding wages, class size and support staff. A year ago, when schools first returned to in-person tutoring, the city and union were engaged in weeks of tense negotiations.
“Having these public head-butting sessions is really bad, I think, for Chicago public schools in general,” Ms. Haden said. “People expect us to get over ourselves, to get over our really strong need to be just right or not be seen as giving in to demands,” she added.
Julia Heyward Contribute to the preparation of reports.