CHICAGO – Chicago Public Schools leaders canceled classes on Wednesday after teachers’ unions voted to switch to distance learning due to the rise in COVID-19 cases, the latest development in an escalating battle over pandemic security protocols in the country’s third-largest school district.
Chicago has rejected a return to distance learning across the district, saying it was catastrophic for children’s learning and mental health. But the union claimed that the district’s security protocols were lacking and that both teachers and students were vulnerable.
Students had returned to class Monday in Chicago after a two-week winter break with COVID-19 infections and hospital admissions driven by the omicron variant at record levels. Nationwide school districts have struggled with the same problem, with most choosing to remain open while increasing virus testing, adjusting protocols and making other real-time adjustments in response to the changing pandemic.
Chicago Teachers Union action, approved by 73% of members, called for remote instruction until “cases disappear significantly,” or union leaders approve an agreement on security protocols with the district. Union members were asked to try to log on to education systems on Wednesday, though the district said there would be no instruction and did not distribute units to students prior to union votes, which were announced just before noon. 23 Tuesday.
“This decision was made with a heavy heart and a unique focus on student and community safety,” the union said in a statement.
However, district officials blamed the union for the late cancellation and said despite security measures, including a high teacher vaccination rate, “our teachers are not willing to report for work.”
“We are deeply concerned about this decision, but even more concerned about its impact on the health, safety and well-being of our students and families,” the district said in a statement.
Instructional status for the rest of the week remained in limbo, while district leaders said a plan to “continue student learning” would come later Wednesday. School officials considered the union a “work stoppage” and said those who did not report to schools on Wednesday would not be compensated. Last year, during a similar debate, the district punished teachers who did not come to school.
Controversial issues in the roughly 350,000 student district include polls that would trigger school closures. The district proposed guidelines for individual school closures, saying safety measures such as required masks, availability of vaccines and improved ventilation make schools the safest places for children to be. But the union has proposed measurements for district-wide closure, citing risks to students and teachers.
While the union has characterized their action as a way to get better safety protocols in schools, district leaders called it an “illegal strike.” A fierce battle took place in January last year over similar issues that caused an uneven start to the district’s return to personal instruction after only being remote in March 2020.
School CEO Pedro Martinez said buildings would remain open to administrators, staff and “essential services,” but not tuition for students in the low-income, black-and-Latino district. District officials said schools would offer food service from 6 p.m. 9 a.m. to noon, and COVID-19 testing would continue as planned, but after-school activities would be canceled. The district also provided a list of urban areas with vacant day care facilities.
In response to union concerns, the district said it has provided 200,000 KN95 masks to teachers, would allow schools to bring back daily health screening questions for students and building visitors required last academic year, and would clarify measurements for individual school closures. For example, the district said it would switch to distance learning at an elementary school if 50% of its classrooms had more than 50% of its students instructed in isolating or quarantining.
The union with about 25,000 members had sought the same polls to close schools from an agreement last year that expired before the new school year started. It includes a district-wide two-week break with personal learning if the city-wide COVID-19 test positivity increases for seven consecutive days, for example.
Union leaders said more security protocols were needed and that the COVID-19 increase caused staff shortages. The district said about 82% of its approximately 21,600 teachers volunteered for work on Monday, which was lower than normal, but that classes were covered by substitutes and other staff.
District officials said student participation for the week was not yet available.
Approximately 100,000 students and 91% of its more than 47,000 employees in the district have been vaccinated, according to the district.