Chicago’s COVID-19 battle with teachers hangs in second week

by Sofia Tarin

CHICAGO (AP) – School leaders in Chicago canceled classes for a fourth day in the nation’s third-largest district as talks with teachers’ union over distance learning and other COVID-19 safety protocols failed to reach an agreement over the weekend.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said in a joint statement Sunday evening that there had not been “substantial progress” in talks to resume in-person classes on Monday, adding to the disruption in the second school week. But he vowed the talks would continue “overnight”.

Controversial issues included tests and metrics for closing schools. The Chicago teachers union wants the option to go back to districtwide remote instruction, and most members have refused to teach in person until an agreement is reached, or the latest COVID-19 spike subsides goes. But Chicago leaders have dismissed districtwide distance learning, saying it is harmful to students and that schools are safe. Instead, Chicago opted to cancel classes two days after the students returned from winter break.

Chicago is facing the same pandemic issues as other districts across the country, where infections escalate and staff members are sidelined. But the state of union-friendly Chicago has escalated into a labor dispute mostly familiar to low-income black and Latino district families, which have seen similar safety protocol battles last year, a 2019 strike, and disruptions during a day . Work stopped in 2016

The announcement for the nearly 350,000 student district came after the principals of some schools had already informed families that their schools would be closed for instruction on Monday due to staff shortages.

The tone of Lightfoot and Martinez’s statement Sunday evening suggested more progress than the day before when, shortly after the union made its latest offering public, they said, “CTU leadership, you’re not listening” and Vowed not to “relent”. The proposal she rejected included distributing laptops for distance learning to teachers reporting to schools on Monday, temporarily starting Wednesday. Both the parties have filed complaints with the State Labor Board.

Union leaders have accused Lightfoot of bullying, saying they agree in-person instruction is better, but the pandemic is forcing tough decisions. Attendance was low before the cancellations to isolate students and teachers from potential exposure to the virus and families who opted to voluntarily keep children home.

“Teachers are not the enemy, Mayor Lightfoot wants them to be,” the union said in a statement Sunday, adding that the desire to be in the classroom “must be balanced by ensuring those classrooms are safe, healthy and well resourced. ” Proper mitigation is essential to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

Union leaders had no immediate reaction after the district canceled Sunday evening.

There appeared to be some progress on a deal over the weekend.

The district, which considers the fight an “illegal walkout,” said late Saturday it would allow more incentives for substitute teachers, provide KN95 masks for all teachers and students, and Illinois will provide about 350,000 antigen tests. But both sides remained on key issues including COVID-19 metrics that would lead to individual school closures and compensation. The district said it would not pay teachers who fail to report to schools, even if they have attempted to enter distance learning systems. The union does not want any of its nearly 25,000 members to be disciplined or lose pay.

District leaders had said that some schools, where there appeared to be enough staff, could even give instructions on Mondays without compromise; All buildings have been kept open for taking food. However, only a few principals expected the staff to open up.

School leaders have cited a $100 million safety plan, which includes air purifiers in each classroom. Also, around 91% of employees are vaccinated and masks are required indoors.

Since the start of the academic year, some individual classes have temporarily switched to distance instruction when the transition occurs. But while rejecting a widespread return to distance learning, city health officials argue that the potential risk to the classroom directs most students into quarantine who do not get COVID-19. The district is piloting a “test to stay” program to cut down on isolation times.

The union argues that the measures fall short, especially given the growth of omicron-fuelled growth that has fueled the return to work and class. It has also criticized the district for not enrolling enough students in a testing program and for having an unreliable database of COVID-19 infections.

Several district families represented by the conservative Liberty Justice Center in Chicago sued over the closures in Cook County last week, while more than 5,000 others signed a petition urging them to return to individual instruction.

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