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Chicago fight with teachers union stretches into second week

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 11, 2022

By Sophia Tareen and Kathleen Foody Associated Press

CHICAGO — The leader of the Chicago Teachers Union on Monday blamed the city’s mayor for the continued standoff over COVID-19 protocols as classes for hundreds of thousands of students were canceled for a fourth day.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said union and district representatives negotiated until 10 p.m. Sunday but “remain apart on a number of key features” that teachers want before returning to classrooms, including a testing program and triggers to close a school for in-person instruction due to an outbreak.

Sharkey accused Mayor Lori Lightfoot of refusing to compromise on teachers’ main priorities and said union leadership can’t go back to members with what the mayor’s team has offered so far.

“The mayor is being relentless but she’s being relentlessly stupid, she’s being relentlessly stubborn,” he said during a Monday news conference. “She’s relentlessly refusing to seek accommodation and we’re trying to find a way to get people back in school.”

Sharkey’s comments came a day after Lightfoot said many teachers had abandoned their students by refusing to teach in-person.

The union wants the option to revert to remote instruction across the 350,000-student district, and most members have refused to teach in-person until there’s an agreement, or the latest COVID-19 spike subsides. But Chicago leaders reject districtwide remote learning, saying it’s detrimental to students and that schools are safe. Instead, Chicago opted to cancel classes two days after students returned from winter break.

Chicago shares pandemic concerns with other districts nationwide, with more reverting to remote learning as infections soar and staff members are sidelined. But the situation in union-friendly Chicago has been amplified in a labor dispute that’s familiar to families in the mostly low-income Black and Latino district who saw disruptions during a similar safety protocol fight last year, a 2019 strike and a one-day work stoppage in 2016.

Cheri Warner joined other parents at a news event Monday calling for the district and teachers to focus on getting students back into classrooms. The mother of 15-year-old twins said the sudden loss of in-person learning has taken a toll on her family.

One of her daughters has depression and anxiety, and winter always is a difficult time. Losing touch with her friends and teachers just adds to that burden, Warner said.

The girls “missed their whole eighth grade year and it felt like they weren’t really prepared for high school,” Warner said. “They’re all trying to figure out how to catch up and it’s a really stressful situation.”

The tone of Lightfoot and CPS Chief Executive Officer Pedro Martinez’s Sunday evening statement suggested more progress than on Saturday when, shortly after the union made its latest offer public, they said, “CTU leadership, you’re not listening” and vowed not to “relent.” The offer she rejected included teachers reporting to schools Monday to distribute laptops for remote learning to temporarily start Wednesday.

Both sides have filed complaints to a state labor board.

Union leaders have accused Lightfoot of bullying, saying that while in-person instruction is better, the pandemic has forced difficult decisions.

“The mayor’s saying she’s going to be relentless in prosecuting a case, but the mayor’s not a prosecutor and I’m not a criminal being prosecuted,” Sharkey said. “Our members are not people who have done anything wrong.”

Attendance was down ahead of the cancellations due to students and teachers quarantining due to possible exposure and families opting to keep their children home. All buildings have remained open for meal pickup.

School leaders have touted a $100 million safety plan, which includes air purifiers in each classroom. Roughly 91% of staff are vaccinated and masks are required indoors.

Since the start of the academic year, some individual classrooms have temporarily switched to remote instruction when there are infections. But in rejecting a widescale return to remote learning, city health officials argue most students directed to quarantine because of possible classroom exposure don’t get COVID-19. The district is piloting a “test to stay” program to cut isolation times.

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

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

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