© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: An exterior image shows Joseph Jungman Public School in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood as Chicago Public Schools suspended personal learning after Chicago Teachers Union members voted to work remotely due to concerns about coronavirus haze
By Lisa Shumaker and Joseph Ax
CHICAGO (Reuters) – Chicago officials canceled classes in the country’s third-largest school district on Wednesday amid a dispute with teachers’ unions over the recent disruption of US education and life as the Omicron variant spurred a record-breaking COVID-19 rise.
The move came after the teachers’ union voted late Tuesday to return to distance learning and pushed for stricter safety protocols, citing concerns about the rapid spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant, which has increased air travel, Broadway shows and return flights. to- office plans in recent weeks.
The rolling seven-day average number of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. hit 540,000, a new high for an eighth day in a row Tuesday. The country broke global records for a single day with nearly 1 million new infections on Monday, according to a Reuters statement.
These staggering numbers have prompted many businesses and school officials to reconsider plans to return to work and education after the holidays.
While most public school districts nationwide chose to open their doors, cities including Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Detroit either implemented online instruction or were delayed back to school due to staff shortages and Omicron concerns.
Officials in Chicago, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot, have been pushing to keep classrooms open, citing low hospitalization rates among the city’s children.
The Chicago Teachers Union urged its members to stay out of the classroom and work remotely until January 18, or return more quickly if the city reached minimum health safety limits set last year as a condition of personal learning.
The union has called for school-based coronavirus testing and mandatory student vaccinations.
After 73% of the rank-and-file union members voted to work remotely, the school district said classes for Chicago’s 340,000 students would be canceled instead.
Halle Quezada, a third-grade teacher in Chicago who has two children ages 4 and 6 in the system, said she is frustrated that the district has not taken more steps to address risks from the virus.
Her immunocompromised husband spent more than a week in the hospital last fall after incurring a breakthrough of COVID-19, and she is desperate not to repeat the experience.
“Right now, I do not trust the system to protect my children,” said Quezada, 34, who pulled her children from school this week, even as she walked into her classroom to teach.
“The difference between me and my kids is that I know I can wear a KN95 mask all day – I did not even take it off for lunch,” she said in a phone interview.
Health experts are nervously keeping an eye on COVID admissions, which have risen by 45% in the last seven days and stand at over 111,000, a figure not seen since January 2021, when the nation recorded a record number of COVID-19 deaths.
So far, deaths have remained stable at around 1,300 on average each day. Health experts say Omicron appears to be less likely to cause serious illness than previous variants, though it is far easier to transmit.
Nevertheless, public health officials have warned that the large volume of Omicron cases threatens to overwhelm hospitals, some of which are already struggling to handle COVID-19 patients, primarily among the unvaccinated.
Maryland is under a 30-day state of emergency as admissions reached a new high on Tuesday. Delaware, Illinois, Ohio, Vermont and Washington, DC, have also reported a record number of hospitalized COVID patients in recent days.
President Joe Biden urged Americans to push past frustration over the persistent pandemic and continue efforts to curb the spread of the virus.
“The coming weeks will be challenging,” Biden said in a video statement released Wednesday. “We have to get through it together. We have the tools to protect people from serious illness because of Omicron if people choose to use the tools.”