Chicago Teachers Union gearing up to walk out on Wednesday over COVID-19 safety concerns

The union wants staff to be able to work remotely instead as COVID-19 cases surge. A vote is likely on Tuesday.

Students at Azuela Elementary School in October 2021. In-person classes for Chicago Public Schools restart on Jan. 3 as the omicron variant is surging. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Students at Azuela Elementary School in October 2021. In-person classes for Chicago Public Schools restart on Jan. 3 as the omicron variant is surging. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Teachers Union gearing up to walk out on Wednesday over COVID-19 safety concerns

The union wants staff to be able to work remotely instead as COVID-19 cases surge. A vote is likely on Tuesday.

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

The Chicago Teachers Union is setting the stage for all teachers and other members to refuse to work in-person beginning Wednesday in conditions they deem unsafe.

The union has scheduled a vote for its more than 25,000 members on Tuesday during the day, asking if they support refusing to work in-person starting Wednesday but to work virtually instead. Tuesday’s vote will be followed by a vote that afternoon by the union’s elected House of Delegates on the refusal action.

At a CTU virtual town hall Sunday evening, 80% of the 8,000 members on the call said they did not want to work in-person in Chicago Public Schools classrooms under current conditions, according to CTU members at the event. CPS classes resumed Monday after a two-week break amid the largest COVID-19 surge yet.

CPS teachers can only work remotely if it’s sanctioned by the Chicago Board of Education. And in an email to families Sunday evening, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said he stands “firmly behind the decision to protect our student’s physical and mental health and promote their academic progress by keeping CPS schools safely open for in-person learning.”

This action is triggering a showdown between the union and the school district, which could lock teachers out of their remote classrooms and prevent them from teaching. This would effectively shut down the school district.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday made clear where she stands.

“What we have learned from this pandemic is that schools are the safest place for students to be: we have spent over a $100 million to put mitigations in place, most CPS staff members are vaccinated, and we generally see little transmission in school settings,” she said in a statement. “Keeping kids safely in school where they can learn and thrive is what we should all be focused on.” Lightfoot also stressed the academic and emotional damage impact of remote learning.

In a statement on Monday, CPS officials also restated their support for in-person learning, saying “districtwide, unwarranted and preemptive mass school closures could actually fuel community spread.” CPS said it as been meeting with the union and has “reiterated that a case-by-case, school-by-school approach is the best way to approach COVID-19 concerns in schools.”

CPS and city officials insist schools are safe for in-person learning. In an email to families on Sunday, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said that “research has shown that with the extraordinary protections we’ve put in place, school is one of the safest places your children can be during the pandemic.” CPS says its protections include masking, contact tracing, testing, cleaning, air purifiers and vaccination opportunities

The threat of a potential walk out by teachers comes just as many parents learned about problems with the COVID-19 tests CPS gave them as winter break began. CPS said it had 150,000 home kits to distribute. However, many parents who tested their children and returned the sample by last week’s deadline were told they couldn’t be analyzed, leaving them without promised test results for the first day of class.

An email sent to many parents said the tests could not be processed within the required 48-hour timeframe “due to weather and holiday related shipping issues.”

CPS’ COVID tracker on Monday showed that 35,831 tests were completed over the past week, with 24,989 invalid and 18% positive. On Monday, CPS said it was seeking “answers” on why more than half the tests couldn’t be validated and it was increasing on-site testing for impacted students this week.

In addition to major processing problems, CPS also made clear that more than 100,000 of the 150,000 available tests were never submitted. CPS says it will support families that want to use the remaining home kits. About 300 of the 498 district-run schools received tests.

This major setback for families is inflaming the bitter debate about whether it is wise to have students in school with COVID-19 cases surging to unprecedented levels.

The Chicago Teachers Union has been saying for weeks it doesn’t think the school district is prepared to welcome students back. Now leaders are saying they’re forced to take action to force CPS’ hand.

“Here we are, a year later in the cold in January, performing another remote action, because [CPS] can’t get it right,” CPS Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said on Monday. She said CPS only responds when the union draws a “line in the snow.”

In a proposal submitted to CPS Thursday, the CTU demanded that the school district require students and staff present a negative COVID-19 test before attending in-person classes on Monday. Without that, the union was proposing a switch to remote learning for two weeks. However, there’s been no further action on that proposal by either side.

The union also wants high-quality masks for all students and staff and for individual schools to switch to all remote learning if 20% of staff are in isolation or quarantine.

The union is especially concerned that schools won’t have enough adults to safely operate because many staff may be out sick. This weekend, the 10 principals of a CPS network of schools on the Southwest Side said in an email to their network chief that at least half of them are struggling with staffing issues because of an increase in teachers coming down with COVID-19. They appealed for staffing help on Monday.

In a bargaining update on Thursday, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said the district has told the union they can’t or won’t meet these demands. “It is hard to see how CPS is going to get done the things needed to run schools safely,” Sharkey said.

But CPS CEO Martinez and the city’s top public health official say they’re sure school can resume. On Thursday, and in a letter to parents on Friday, Martinez said CPS has “thoroughly” cleaned all the schools, doubled the staff available to deal with the increase in cases, is buying two million more masks and will provide home test kits to students.

But Martinez did say he expects a lot of students will test positive for the virus and instructed parents to keep sick students home. Still, he stressed that no other large school district is moving to all remote learning for as long as two weeks.

Martinez sent several letters to parents during the winter break, adding promises to take more action to keep students safe as cases rise. In the letter on Friday, he identified what the school district considers in-school transmission — three cases in one class. This is something CPS hadn’t done previously.

When that happens, he said the school district is committed to providing testing, making vaccines accessible, enhancing cleaning and ensuring substitutes are available.

“We look forward to a healthy and successful start to 2022 when we welcome students back to school on Monday, January 3,” Martinez wrote.

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady added that children are not the driver of the most recent COVID-19 surge and that schools are safe when proper mitigations are in place.

One of the district’s big safety initiatives was the 150,000 COVID-19 tests home before winter break. At Park Manor Elementary on the South Side Monday morning, teachers said they volunteered their time over winter break to help families complete the tests, only to find that most had ended up spoiled. Teachers and staff were refusing to work in person on Monday and were trying to work remotely, as they did before break when there was a spike in cases at the school. They say the school district has told them they must be in person and threatened to withhold pay and to discipline them. 

Finding out that so many tests couldn’t be processed is a disappointment to some parents who hoped for some peace of mind returning their children to school.

Belinda Marrero said the whole process has been confusing and difficult. She said she went to two test drop off locations on Monday — before the original Tuesday deadline — but neither would take the tests. Finally, a third place accepted them. But then she got the email Sunday that none of her test results could be processed.

“It is just very unorganized,” she said. Marrero said she still plans to send her three children to Zapata Elementary School in Little Village, but she is concerned that they will contract COVID-19. None of her children are vaccinated, which she says is a personal decision.

She said many other parents at her school did not even send back results because it was so confusing.

One school organized an at-school drop off and its parents say they got results.

Meanwhile, at least two schools tried to get testing on site on Monday, but were told by CPS that they couldn’t use an unauthorized vendor.

A company called On-Call Vital Health is instead setting up testing at a food pantry near a school. The teachers at the school, who do not want to be identified, are planning to send children there before entering the building.

Sobiya Ali, a technician at the lab, said it would be much more efficient at the school. Ali, who is a parent herself, said she doesn’t think it is safe for children, especially those who aren’t vaccinated to go into schools.

Other parents say they want to keep their children at home until those who contracted COVID-19 over the holidays are sent home or are no longer contagious.

Michelle Bautista said she plans to keep her children home at least through Wednesday. She said she wants to see how the situation is unfolding before sending her two children back to Galileo Math & Science Scholastic Academy on the Near West Side.

She said she is frustrated that all the guidance from the public health department and the school district has stayed the same as last year, despite the presence of delta and omicron variants and the spike in cases.

“I was hoping that they would ramp something up in terms of testing, better masks for students, but I haven’t seen that,” Bautista said.

She added that officials keep talking about research and percentages, but parents are thinking about if their child has a bad outcome. “It is my child’s health,” she said.

But other parents want their children in school. Ryan Griffin started the Chicago Parents Collective organization last year to push for in-person learning. He said lots of parents are upset, especially with the CTU threatening a work action again. Parents, he said, need their children in class.

Griffin said he does not understand why some parents and the Chicago Teachers Union are rejecting the guidance of the public health department.

He said he has been satisfied with how school has been going so far with masks being worn, regular testing of some students and accessible vaccines.

“We have proven in the first two quarters, even during the delta surge of a contagious, potentially serious illness, that schools were able to stay open successfully. And to be debating anything else at this point, I think is misguided. So that’s where the frustration has come in.”

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.