CHICAGO (WLS) -- Chicago Public Schools students went back into their classrooms Monday, even while the teachers union appears to be setting the stage for another showdown with the district.
The Chicago Teachers Union has scheduled a vote Tuesday asking their members whether they support refusing to work in-person starting Wednesday.
Speaking outside Park Manor Elementary School in Greater Grand Crossing, CTU members said that with rising cases across the city, being inside the classroom is not safe, and they believe there is no plan in place to teach if things get worse.
"Not only are they gonna pull subs, they are going to double-up classrooms, so there will be teachers who will take two more classrooms," said CTU VP Stacy Davis Gates. "There will be teachers in an auditorium. There will be school clerks in classrooms. There will be principals in three classrooms. Your children, Chicago, when they come back to these school communities will not have every single teacher."
The union's call for a temporary return to remote learning comes as the state is experiencing its highest test positivity ever, leading to staffing shortages across the board.
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Thousands of CPS students were dismissed from school Monday as school leaders work to maneuver through rising COVID cases in the city.
"We have different sides that we eat on so we have one side where you have to eat breakfast and you cannot talk, and we have another side where you can talk but you have to keep the mask on," said Chris Fulton, Jr., second grader at South Loop Elementary.
CPS sent home more than 150,000 at-home tests last month, to get kids tested and ready for Monday's start, but at the deadline, return bins were filled to capacity with kits. With so many kits, they were not processed on time, so many test came back inconclusive, frustrating parents that want to send their kids back with confidence.
At Park Manor Elementary, where 70% of students were quarantined before the break, teachers arranged for an independent vendor to set up outside the school Monday morning to conduct rapid tests for students - except the vendor never showed.
"It's very confusing how we took our time out to bring the children to comply with CPS and we got no results," said parent Danelda Archer. "How can allow my children to come back and they don't even have a negative or positive result."
The company, Color, notified parents that their at-home COVID tests came back inconclusive, saying in an email, "Some of the COVID-19 samples collected this week were delayed in transit to the testing lab due to weather and holiday-related shipping issues. As a result, those tests could not be processed within the required 48-hour timeframe ..."
In a statement, Color said, "Color provides software and patient support services for Chicago Public School's large-scale testing program, which allows the district to bring their students, faculty, and staff back safely to the classroom. This week's challenges are the result of holiday-related shipping delays and in response, we have worked quickly and efficiently with our partners, Thermo Fisher Scientific and Chicago Public Schools, to support extended testing drop-off hours and additional testing hours on Thursday, December 30, as well as additional testing days next week."
After a meeting last night, CTU members plan to vote Tuesday night on whether they want to continue to work in-person.
For their part, CPS continues to say in-person learning is best. In a statement, officials say, "Even while we experience increases in cases in the community, what we know from research and experience is that the safest place for students to be is in school, where mitigation is strong and clear protocols are being followed."
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."
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez acknowledged his frustration Monday, but said he is determined to make things better.
"This week we will have the most COVID testing we have had in any week," Martinez said. "Today we're testing at 125 schools. It's the most schools we've ever done and because we had so many tests that were not valid, we're visiting some schools multiple times to give families multiple opportunities to get tested."
Martinez also said he's determined to reach a negotiated agreement with the teachers union, but insisting a targeted, case-by-case approach is the best way to handle any outbreaks.
"The challenge with having a districtwide action is it puts everybody in the same umbrella and then it becomes very challenging at how you reverse that?" Martinez said. "We can keep it at the school level and respond to the data."
Still others, like Ryan Griffin with Chicago Parents Collective, say remote learning is not the answer. The father of two CPS boys who have each been quarantined once this school year supports taking a classroom by classroom approach.
"Our oldest son, you can just tell the difference on the developmental side, socially and emotionally as well as educationally. What it's been like these last three months, it's been amazing," Griffin said.
CPS teachers can only work remotely if sanctioned by the Board of Education. Union leaders said Monday they expect those who do choose to stay home Wednesday to have their pay docked.