Chicago schools close for second day amid COVID-19 surge

Jan 6, 2022, 2:10 PM | Updated: Jun 8, 2022, 3:22 pm
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JANUARY 05: A sign is displayed at the entrance of the headquarters for Chicago...
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JANUARY 05: A sign is displayed at the entrance of the headquarters for Chicago Public Schools on January 05, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. Classes at all of Chicago public schools have been canceled today by the school district after the teacher's union voted to return to virtual learning citing unsafe conditions in the schools as the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus continues to spread. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Chicago public schools are closed for a second day Thursday as city school officials and the teachers union remain at odds over whether it’s safe to return to the classroom, frustrating some parents who feel they and their students are stuck between both sides.

“We don’t know how to plan out the next 24 hours, let alone the next 24 days,” parent Nolberto Casas told CNN’s Omar Jimenez.

“They point the fingers at the district, then they point the fingers at the teachers,” said Casas, who wants students to be learning in-person. “I’m pointing the finger at my child, because he’s the one who ends up losing out in this whole argument.”

The rift between the nation’s third-largest school district and its teachers union echoes a debate playing out across the country amid a Covid-19 surge fueled by the Omicron variant: When and how should students return to the classroom?

In-person learning resumed Monday, but the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted Tuesday night to teach virtually instead. The union has said conditions for in-person learning were unsafe, citing inadequate staffing and testing as new Covid-19 cases and new hospitalizations among children reached record highs.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS), which has about 340,000 students, responded by canceling school Wednesday, insisting children needed to return to classrooms.

Negotiations are ongoing, city officials said in a news conference Wednesday night. One union official with knowledge of ongoing negotiations told CNN it was a productive day and that there was “movement.”

CTU President Jesse Sharkey indicated Wednesday teachers might not return to classrooms until January 18 if the stalemate continues. Teachers may return earlier if the surge subsides or the union reaches an agreement with city officials.

The city, like much of the country, has recently seen a significant rise in Covid-19 cases along with climbing hospitalizations: According to data from the Chicago Department of Public Health, as of Wednesday, the city was seeing a daily average of 4,998 new cases, up 21% from the week prior. The city also reported a daily average of 112 hospitalizations, up 14% compared to the week prior.

Meantime, some parents say they are dissatisfied with both the union and the city.

“I am very disappointed in the Chicago Teachers Union for the fearmongering tactics and negative rhetoric regarding this vote,” said Carolina Barrera Tobón, a parent to a first grader and third grader in the district. “I am equally disappointed in the CPS CEO and our mayor.

“CPS has dropped the ball on so many important decisions and the implementation of safety procedures,” she said. “And I honestly do not trust the teachers union to stay remote for only two weeks after their continued spread of misinformation regarding the safety of our schools.”

Ryan Griffin, another CPS parent and founder of the Chicago Parents Collective, which pushes for in-person learning, pointed to public health officials who have emphasized the importance of having students in class “above all else.”

“Instead of being surgical and quarantining certain classes at certain schools where spread in the community is high, they are closing down 550 schools serving 340,000 students,” he said. “That is not the right approach; that’s putting a sledgehammer and chaos into a big district.”


‘I’m afraid,’ educator says


Chicago teachers say they’re looking to make sure classrooms are safe. In a union news conference Wednesday, Sharkey said they were seeking a “meaningful screening testing program.”

That would give teachers “some assurance that people who are in front of us, who are surrounding us in schools, aren’t positive for coronavirus,” he said, adding, “it’s a fairly simple ask and we are not going to get yelled at or bullied into ignoring what makes common sense.”

Michael Smith, a Chicago high school teacher and union representative, told CNN Wednesday teachers are looking for “basic things,” adding that two years into the pandemic, teachers are dealing with the “same old, same old” from district leaders.

“It’s not a matter of, we don’t want to be there. It’s that we can’t stay stay there,” he said. “There are times in a school building where we have half the staff out. Kids are sent into these buildings; we can’t find subs as a result. We have random people covering classes.”

“Even right now — Monday, Tuesday — there weren’t enough people to even hold classes because people were out,” he said. “They were ushering kids into gyms, into classrooms … Kids aren’t learning.”

Educator Keyonna Payton wanted increased testing because she’s worried about her family, she said Wednesday.

“I’m afraid because I have a husband, I have a young child, I have a 90-year-old grandmother with underlying health conditions and issues,” Payton said. “So I would just appreciate being able to work in an environment where at least the students are all PCRed tested weekly, and we have their results to go to in-person instruction.”

Remote learning at this time doesn’t appear to be an option: Some educators tried to log on to remote teaching platforms Wednesday, only to discover they’d been locked out, the union tweeted.

CPS officials didn’t confirm whether they had locked teachers out of their remote platforms. But Wednesday morning, the school district reiterated to CNN the union’s vote amounted to “a work stoppage.”

But the lockout was “disheartening and disappointing,” Payton said, because it wasted a day when students could have been learning.


Officials insist schools are safe


In a news conference late Wednesday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot pleaded with teachers to return to the classroom, saying, “enough is enough.”

“We are standing firm and we are going to fight to get our kids back in in-person learning! Period,” Lightfoot said, adding the decision to cancel Thursday’s classes was “difficult.”

Take-home breakfasts and lunches remain available at schools from 9 a.m. to noon local time, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said.

City officials have said teachers who do not report to work will not be paid, characterizing the the union’s decision as an “illegal work stoppage.”

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady told CNN’s Don Lemon Wednesday night she was “disappointed that this is where we are,” but acknowledged the Covid-19 surge.

“But what we’ve seen over and over again is that with the appropriate protocols in place, schools are not major sources of transmission of Covid,” she said. “They don’t drive outbreaks, and we’ve seen Chicago Public Schools — just like our non-public schools in Chicago — do a good job of implementing those.”

The commissioner had reassured families Tuesday, telling them the virus “is behaving really like the flu,” adding schools don’t close “for extended periods of time for the flu.”

“If I thought that having school was going to lead to unnecessary spread, major outbreaks, major problems, of course I would not be in support of it,” Arwady told Lemon. “But it’s just not what the data suggests.”

Schools, she said, should be the places in a community that are first to open and last to close.

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Chicago schools close for second day amid COVID-19 surge