CPS to cancel classes Wednesday if CTU votes to walkout
CHICAGO (WLS) -- The Chicago Teachers Union voted Tuesday to switch to remote learning because of a surge in COVID cases, prompting Chicago Public Schools to cancel classes Wednesday.
CTU tweeted that 73% of its members voted in favor of the remote work only "job action," which they said will end when either the current COVID surge subsides or Mayor Lori Lightfoot's team at CPS signs "an agreement establishing conditions for return that are voted on and approved by the CTU House of Delegates."
CPS said it will cancel classes for Wednesday if the teachers vote to go remote until Jan. 18. Mayor Lori Lightfoot joined CPS CEO Pedro Martinez and Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady to give an update on Tuesday evening.
All three expressed frustrations with the union's vote, and emphasized repeatedly that schools have been among the safest places for COVID transmission, especially now that vaccines are widely available. Dr. Arwady said so far during this surge, the city has seen few COVID hospitalizations among children, and that what they have seen are among children who are at higher risk for severe illness and have already been given the option to opt into remote learning.
CPS students just returned from winter break Monday. But union leaders say the classroom is not safe for teachers, or students.
"Unfortunately, our union is again being backed into a corner of being the leader in the city that the mayor refuses to be," said CTU VP Stacy Davis Gates.
CPS teachers can only work remotely if they are sanctioned by the Board of Education. Union leaders said members who decide to work from home will likely have their pay docked.
Martinez said he is in communication with CTU and is trying to keep teachers in school. He said if the CTU votes to walkout, classes will be canceled but schools will remain open for administrators and staff, and students who show up will not be turned away.
"We will still continue to provide essential services, and we will have a plan in place whether it's for nutrition, we still have COVID testing that's scheduled in the schools," he said.
CTU is demanding all students, teachers and vendors test negative within 48 hours of returning to class. The union also wants KN95 masks, or those of similar quality, for all students and staff, as well as a return to last year's agreed upon thresholds for a move to remote learning, including a 10% or higher test positivity rate.
Martinez said he prefers to do targeted quarantines instead of a one-size-fits-all solution. He shared what he called a "fair" offer the district has made CTU, including the purchase of 200,000 KN95 masks for staff, to be distributed immediately, with more on the way; reinstatement of health screenings and temperature checks at schools that want them; and the creation of a tactical team to meet with CTU daily to address specific school concerns.
"It is not because I have any concerns about the schools not being safe," Martinez said. "I am trying to respond to the anxiety that exists."
CPS said that targeted approach to quarantine and closures is supported by the science.
"In what world would we think to close something essential like in-person education, when we have seen the negative effects of that, when our bars remain open?" said Dr. Arwady.
At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, CEO Martinez said he is frustrated by "misinformation" about how safe the schools are.
"The amount of noise that is out there right now, the amount of misinformation, we have so many people that are afraid from parents to my staff because of the misinformation and I again, I continue to plead, let's listen to our medical professionals," he said.
At the same press conference, Arwady said the risk to children from COVID remains low and is similar to influenza. Dr. Arwady said the risk is even lower for vaccinated children.
"I just want to reassure you, if you're vaccinated, your child is vaccinated, this is behaving really like the flu," Arwady said. "And we don't close schools, especially for an extended period of time, for the flu."
Dr. Arwady and Martinez said every CPS school has COVID testing in place and they are working to expand capacity.
On Monday, Martinez, acknowledged the district's efforts to screen students in some of the city's most vulnerable communities before Monday's return from winter break had been a failure, after most of the at-home test kits returned were invalidated, having been received by the lab too late. Martinez, however, said his visits to various schools Monday reinforced his view that learning should remain in person, targeting only affected classrooms for remote learning when needed.
"I want to give the flexibility to schools because I see such a variance with what's happening with COVID," Martinez said. "I was at Park Manor, for example, where almost all the teachers are out. Very few of the teachers are there in person. Then I went to other schools where we have some staff that are out and most of the children are there."
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, "The best thing that we can do for our students, staff and all our partners at CPS is to get vaccinated. Keeping kids safely in school where they can learn and thrive is what we should all be focused on."
Some parents expressed mixed emotions on the current situation.
"I feel safe regardless," said CPS parent Shuddeen Harriott. "I think this is something that we're obviously going to have to live with."
"With the rise in cases, it's like any day now that somebody is going to come in contact with COVID," said CPS parent Chris Fulton Sr.