Chicago mayor, teachers still at odds over COVID protocols

"The best, safest place for kids to be is in school," said Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot

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Closed-door negotiations resumed Saturday to resolve a standoff between Chicago school officials and the city’s teachers union over COVID-19 precautions that canceled three days of classes this week, but the public war-of-words between union leaders and Chicago’s mayor showed little sign of an imminent resolution.

In a written statement, Mayor Lori Lightfoot flatly rejected the union’s latest proposal that softened its prior demand for mandatory testing but wouldn’t put kids back in classrooms until mid-January.

“CTU leadership, you’re not listening,” Lightfoot said. “The best, safest place for kids to be is in school. Students need to be back in person as soon as possible. That’s what parents want. That’s what the science supports. We will not relent.”

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union and supporters stage a car caravan protest outside City Hall in the Loop, Wednesday evening, Jan. 5, 2022. Chicago school leaders canceled classes in the nation’s third-largest school district for the second straight day after failing to reach an agreement with the teachers union over remote learning and other COVID-19 safety protocols. (Ashlee Rezin /Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

The blunt response came less than an hour after leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union unveiled their latest proposal to resume remote instruction Wednesday and in-person instruction on Jan. 18. The union also backed a random screening program that students could opt out of, rather than mandatory testing.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said Lightfoot’s opposition to an opt-out testing program and remote learning districtwide doesn’t “compute.”

“We’d like to see the mayor make a compromise as well,” Sharkey said. “I mean what the mayor is essentially offering instead is no instruction in schools at all, no services. She’s offering schools as warming centers where arts and crafts and open gyms can take place.”

The union, which voted this week to revert to online instruction, told teachers not to show up to schools starting Wednesday while talks took place. The move just two days after students returned from winter break prompted district officials to cancel classes in the roughly 350,000-student district for three days, and many principals have warned parents they are unlikely to be able to hold classes on Monday.

Both Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez and Lightfoot have maintained that moving the entire district to remote instruction is a nonstarter, preferring to reserve that step in response to infections within an individual school.

The union’s proposal maintained a trigger to end in-person instruction if COVID-19 rates within the city increase at certain levels.

Lightfoot also favors an opt-in testing program contrary to the union’s stance, saying parents should be the ones making that decision for their children. Other sticking points include metrics to trigger individual school closures.

School districts nationwide have confronted the same issues, with most opting to stay open while ramping up virus testing and tweaking protocols in response to the shifting pandemic. But a growing number of U.S. districts, including some large school systems, have gone back to remote learning as infections soar and sideline staff members.

The union has blasted the district for not doing enough, like botching a testing program and maintaining unreliable data on infections in schools. They’ve sought demands similar to a safety agreement put in place last year after a fierce debate. However, the district says the pandemic is different now and requires a different response, particularly since 91% of school staff is vaccinated.

Attendance was low in schools earlier this week, with thousands of students in quarantine or opting to stay home to avoid exposure.

Still, many parents had to scramble to again make last-minute arrangements for their children. Others agreed that being out of school was riskier than being in classrooms where masks and social distancing are used.

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