With schools shuttered, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot blames union leaders for ‘chaotic conduct’

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Mayor Elect Lori Lightfoot appears on the Morning Shift with Jenn White on March 28, 2019. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ, file photo
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Mayor Elect Lori Lightfoot appears on the Morning Shift with Jenn White on March 28, 2019. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ, file photo

With schools shuttered, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot blames union leaders for ‘chaotic conduct’

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is defending her approach and doubling down on her decision to play hard ball with the Chicago Teachers Union as teachers voted in overwhelming numbers to disobey her order to report to in-person class while COVID-19 cases surge.

In an interview with WBEZ on Wednesday that focused primarily on the most recent strife between Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union, the mayor blamed CTU for a chaotic start to the year — the third school disruption under her watch — as well as questioned the union’s motives.

At issue is disagreement over whether it’s safe to return to school after a holiday break and amid a massive surge in COVID-19. Just before 11 p.m. Tuesday night, the CTU announced that 73% of its more than 25,000 members voted to teach remotely until Jan. 18 or until COVID-19 case numbers improve in the city, whichever comes sooner.

“We love our teachers. We appreciate them,” Lightfoot said. “But the CTU leadership is a whole different matter. And we cannot allow them to blow up the school system because they decide that they want to engage in disruptive, chaotic conduct.”

The mayor and Chicago Public Schools leadership insist schools are safe, and are calling the refusal to work in-person a strike and an illegal work action. Lightfoot said Wednesday afternoon she will be meeting with CPS to discuss further steps, including potentially taking legal action against the union. CPS is expected to provide an update at some point Wednesday.

As of now, CPS has cancelled all classes for Wednesday and locked teachers out of their CPS computer accounts.

When asked why Lightfoot adamantly opposes allowing teachers to go remote for eight school days while negotiations continue, the mayor characterized the CTU’s proposed return date of January 18th as “arbitrary” and questioned whether they would stick to it.

“They keep moving the goalposts,” she said. “Why would I believe … that they will actually come back? And frankly what it underscores is how arbitrary the decisions of the CTU leadership are in disrespect of our parents, our students and data and science. They don’t believe in any of that. What they believe in is exercising raw political power.”

On Wednesday morning, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said they’ve been “failed by the mayor” and the “public health office.” The union argues that CPS’ safety and testing protocols are inadequate, leaving school staff and students at risk.

Sharkey said teachers will return to schools after the latest COVID-19 surge subsides, even if there is no safety agreement reached with the school district. He noted Tuesday’s vote, which said teachers would return by Jan. 18 or when the surge subsidies, whichever happens first.

“We don’t want to go back to last year, no one does,” Sharkey said. “We think it’s reasonable to ask for testing and safety mitigations in the current context, and then we think quickly the surge passes and we’re able to get back to in-person instruction.”

The vote and action are another blow to the already fraught relationship between Lightfoot and the union, and marks their third major labor dispute since Lightfoot took office in 2019. The first was a 11-day strike later that year.

In a late Tuesday evening news conference where the mayor and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez reviewed tentative plans for the next day, Lightfoot quipped that the evening felt like “Groundhog Day.”

She was harkening back to last winter, when elementary school staff refused to report in-person, setting off a series of threats and ultimately delaying the return of in-person learning. The two sides finally reached an agreement and elementary students began returning on March 1.

On Wednesday, Lightfoot deflected questions about whether she feels she needs to change her approach with the union, insisting the question be posed to the CTU instead.

“Why is it that when we knew we could bring kids back to school safely, why did they fight us again and again and again?” Lightfoot asked. ”Why, like the movie Groundhog Day, are they at it again, when there is no scientific reason to shut this whole school system down?”

Lightfoot’s frustration with the teachers’ union is not new, but could continue to escalate. Though she has not yet officially declared whether she will run for another term in 2023, the mayor ramped up her fundraising efforts in December. The CTU has been among her staunchest critics and biggest challenges, despite her attempts to buy labor peace.

“Why did they strike when we gave them the largest contract in the history of the Union?” Lightfoot asked, referring to the 5-year deal reached in the fall of 2019 after a 11-day strike that provided 3 to 3.5 percent annual raises and agreements to hire more than 200 social workers and more than 200 school nurses.

Lightfoot is also dealing with the fact that the school system has been hemorrhaging students for years now. Over the mayor’s tenure alone, 25,000 students across socioeconomic backgrounds and races have left the district. Lightfoot argues labor strife is a contributing factor.

“If their long game is to have a great city that all of us can thrive in, why do they keep doing this in a way that disrespects families, takes away from our families their choice and creates chaos in a system?” Lightfoot said. “That is not a long term winning solution. That’s on them. Not on me.”

The showdown over returning to in-person learning amid the omicron surge puts Chicago Public Schools at the center of a roiling national debate. On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki even weighed in, saying schools are safe for students, including in Chicago.

Many Chicago teachers don’t believe it is safe to teach in-person, though. They say CPS’ safety and testing protocols are insufficient, given that large numbers of children remain unvaccinated and vaccinated people are also contracting the virus.

But Lightfoot, Martinez and Chicago’s public health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady insist schools are safe. Arwady said Tuesday that most studies show COVID spread in school is typically less than in the community and school-based transmission has been low.

Lightfoot also stressed that remote learning was difficult for a lot of students, causing high absenteeism, an increase in failure rates and mental health issues. She also said it was a disaster for working families, who had to juggle work with keeping their kids at home and plugged in to class on their computer.

Lightfoot also defended current policies around testing children, which require parents to opt-in rather than opt-out of mandatory testing.

“You’re not going to be in a world where we do a quasi medical procedure on little children without their parents affirmative, written consent,” she said.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Lightfoot characterized the CTU’s actions as “fear mongering and hysteria.” She defended that characterization Wednesday, even after thousands of teachers voted with union leadership. Lightfoot acknowledged that teachers’ individual concerns may be valid, but reiterated she believes schools are safe.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic and a surge that’s unprecedented in our 20-plus months of experience with this deadly virus. I absolutely understand individuals’ concerns,” she said. “But what I also know is this is not the time for us to abandon science, and what the science and the data tell us is that the safest place for children to be in a pandemic is in the classroom.”

Lightfoot went on to highlight safety protocols the district has taken, spending $100 million on things like hand sanitizer, ventilation, partitions, and more.

CPS leaders sent a proposal to the teachers union on Tuesday morning that included setting a metric that would move individual schools to remote learning due to a COVID outbreak — something the CTU has been pushing for. But CTU President Sharkey on Wednesday morning called CPS’ plan “sorely inadequate.”

The union had proposed moving to remote learning if 20% of staff are in isolation or quarantine. CPS is proposing that a school move to remote learning if 40% or more of a school’s classroom teachers are absent for two consecutive days because of the teachers’ documented COVID-19 cases for the month of January only.

Currently, Chicago is seeing its highest number of daily COVID-19 cases, with an average of about 4,775 cases per day. About 69% of all eligible residents are vaccinated.

WBEZ’s Becky Vevea and Sarah Karp contributed.

Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter at @MariahWoelfel.