CHICAGO (AP) — Students in the nation’s third-largest district returned to classrooms Wednesday after Chicago Public Schools canceled five days of classes amid a standoff with the teachers union over COVID-19 safety protocols.
CTU representatives say 55% of members voted in favor of the deal.
“This vote is a clear show of dissatisfaction with the boss,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said. “It’s outrageous that teachers, school nurses, counselors and more had to endure a week of being locked out by the mayor just to get a commitment from her bargaining team to provide every student with an N95 mask in a pandemic.”
Sharkey said the agreement covers only a portion of the safety guarantees desired by CTU but adds that he is proud of the ‘courage and sacrifice’ who members who took a stand and decided to walk out.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez released a joint statement following the approval:
“We are pleased we have come to an agreement that guarantees predictability and stability for the rest of the school year. We all agree we must prioritize the health and well-being of everyone in our school communities including our kids, families, and staff. The science tells us that the safest place for our students is to be in the classroom, which is why, in addition to the over $100 million already spent on COVID mitigation, CPS is providing KN95 masks, augmenting its every school-every week testing program, and strengthening its contact tracing approach. CPS principals will continue to work with their school-based safety teams to make data-informed decisions in the best interests of students and families. We encourage families to get their children vaccinated and to consent to regular testing. We look forward to our continued collaboration with the entire school community.”
Student’s return happened the same day the full membership of the Chicago Teachers Union gave their stamp of approval to the hard-fought safety plan that includes expanded testing and metrics to shut down individual schools during outbreaks.
Leaders of the union gave their tentative approval two days earlier allowing children to return. They urged members to accept it, acknowledging that teachers didn’t get initial demands including a commitment to use remote learning districtwide during a surge of COVID-19 infections.
Union President Jesse Sharkey said the agreement “wasn’t a home run” but was “as much as we could get right now.”
Chicago’s struggles to keep educating children during the omicron variant’s surge are similar to those faced by districts across the country, but the latest high-profile fight between teachers and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, forced attention from the White House and governor’s office.
The union, which voted last week to revert to online instruction, told teachers not to show up to schools starting Jan. 5 while talks took place
Lightfoot — who disclosed Tuesday that she had tested positive for COVID-19 and was isolating at home — repeatedly refused to agree to remote learning districtwide. She also opposed teachers’ demands for a testing program that could randomly test all students unless their parents opted out.
For parents and students in Chicago, the return to school buildings brought mixed emotions.
Derrontae Gonzalez, the mother of a 5-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl in Chicago schools, said she understands why teachers pushed for stricter COVID-19 protocols. But she told The Chicago Sun-Times that the days of canceled classes were difficult, particularly for her son who has a learning disability.
“I’m not concerned,” Gonzalez said of Wednesday’s return to classrooms. “I think the school takes precautions to make sure kids are safe. And I make sure my kids have masks.”
Trinity Washington, a freshman at a high school on the city’s Northwest Side, said she supported the teacher’s push and plans to be more cautious about keeping a mask on at school. She noted that a school dean has contracted COVID-19 and is on a ventilator.
“I feel like everyone should just go home and stay virtual because it feels like everyone in our building is just getting sick and sick and sick,” she said.