CPS plans to cancel classes on Wednesday if teachers vote to refuse to work in person

The teachers union is voting today to go virtual starting Wednesday. But CPS says there will be no school if teachers aren’t in classrooms.

Staff and Chicago Teachers Union members at Park Manor Elementary on Chicago's South Side speak out on Monday Jan. 3, 2022 about conditions in their schools that they say make it unsafe for in-person learning. Sarah Karp / WBEZ
Staff and Chicago Teachers Union members at Park Manor Elementary on Chicago's South Side speak out on Monday Jan. 3, 2022 about conditions in their schools that they say make it unsafe for in-person learning. Sarah Karp / WBEZ

CPS plans to cancel classes on Wednesday if teachers vote to refuse to work in person

The teachers union is voting today to go virtual starting Wednesday. But CPS says there will be no school if teachers aren’t in classrooms.

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The head of Chicago Public Schools says he will cancel all classes on Wednesday if Chicago Teachers Union members vote Tuesday evening to refuse to teach in person. The school district is calling this potential move by the union an “illegal work action” and a “strike.”

In the first of two rounds of voting on Tuesday evening, the union’s delegates voted overwhelmingly to approve a plan to work remotely, with 88% of 632 delegates voting yes. The question next goes for a vote to all 25,000 CTU members from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday.

The CTU wants to revert to remote learning starting Wednesday, saying conditions at schools aren’t safe because of the COVID-19 surge. But CPS CEO Pedro Martinez says there will be no instruction on Wednesday if teachers aren’t in classrooms. Martinez said the school district needs time to come up with a “responsible plan.”

At the same time, Martinez is taking steps to try to prevent the CTU walkout.

“My goal is to have, hopefully, have a reasonable agreement today with the union,” he said.

On Tuesday he gave the union a proposal that includes a metric that would shut down individual schools due to a COVID outbreak, which is something the union has been demanding. The proposal also included immediately distributing 200,000 KN95 masks to staff, increased contact tracing and the return of daily health screeners at schools that want them. Martinez also said he had asked the union to delay the vote.

CPS’ metric to close individual schools has a much higher bar than what CTU has proposed — the union wants a school to go remote 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. When it comes to students, an elementary school would go virtual if 50% of classrooms have more than 50% of students instructed to isolate or quarantine.

Martinez stressed he was taking additional steps to calm anxiety and fears, and not because he thinks schools are unsafe. “It’s not because our staff aren’t safe right now,” Martinez said Tuesday afternoon. “It is to reduce the anxiety. If that’s what’s going to make them feel better, I feel like I have to respond.”

He also expressed great frustration with the level of misinformation about COVID-19 in schools that he said he sees and hears, specifically noting that there’s been little in-school transmission. He said there is a myth that there are high levels of transmission.

Martinez spoke just hours before the union’s elected House of Delegates met meet to vote on whether to defy orders from the school district to work in person “because of the Board’s refusal to implement adequate COVID-19 health and safety protocols,” according to a union email to members. 

The union wants staff to work remotely until Jan. 18 or until the city no longer meets metrics for a district-wise pause of in-person learning laid out in an agreement that was in place last school year. Now that the House of Delegates has approved the measure, teachers and staff have until 9 pm to will vote electronically. CTU said it could suspend remote learning before Jan. 18 if a safety agreement is reached with CPS.

At a CTU virtual town hall Sunday evening, 81% of the 8,000 members said they didn’t want to work in-person under current conditions, according to the union. CPS classes resumed Monday after a two-week break amid the largest COVID-19 surge yet.

CPS teachers can only work remotely if sanctioned by the school district. CPS could lock teachers out of their remote classrooms and prevent them from teaching. This would effectively shut down the school district. 

Both the school district CEO and Mayor Lori Lightfoot want students learning in person, insist it’s safe and are worried about the damage caused by remote learning. The school district says its protections include masking, contact tracing, testing, cleaning, air purifiers and vaccination opportunities.

Regarding moving to remote learning, CPS officials said in a statement that “districtwide, unwarranted and preemptive mass school closures could actually fuel community [COVID-19] spread.” They said they’ve been meeting with the union and “reiterated that a case-by-case, school-by-school approach is the best way to approach COVID-19 concerns in schools.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Martinez added that it wasn’t practical to make a citywide decision when conditions vary from school to school and in a district where over 100,000 students are fully vaccinated.

“A vote to stop reporting to work would cause profound hard to children’s learning and health and be another damaging blow to the well being of our students and their families,” CPS said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

Martinez last week noted that neither New York nor Los Angeles are moving to remote learning temporarily. However, several smaller city districts, including Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Newark, have delayed reopening after winter break or have temporarily switched to virtual learning.

CTU safety demands

As part of its vote on Tuesday, the union says it wants to remain remote until Jan. 18 or until the city no longer meets the metrics for a shift to remote learning detailed in an agreement between the union and CPS in place last school year.

That agreement said CPS would move to remote learning if the city’s seven-day average COVID-19 test positive rate hits the following targets: increases for seven consecutive days; the rate for each of the seven consecutive days is at least 15% higher than the rate one week prior; and the rate on the seventh day is 10% or greater. Under that agreement, in-person learning would resume after 14 days or when the criteria are no longer met.

Reinstating that metric is among the Chicago Teachers Union long list of safety demands for the school district. Now, leaders are saying they must take action to force CPS’ hand on their demands.

“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 to 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 was no further action on that proposal by either side.

The union also has been asking for high-quality masks for all students and staff, and and for the school closing metric. The union is particularly worried about schools being short of adults to safely operate because many staff may be out sick. On Monday, CPS reported that 18% of teachers were absent.

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.

But Martinez and the city’s top public health official have been saying they’re confident schools can remain open safely. Ahead of Monday’s opening, Martinez said CPS has “thoroughly” cleaned all the schools, doubled the staff available to deal with the increase in cases, is buying 2 million more masks and will provide home test kits to students. CPS is also instructing parents to keep sick students home.

But CPS didn’t require students to test negative for COVID-19 before returning to school, as have other urban districts, like Los Angeles and Washington D.C., and some local private schools.

Martinez sent several letters to parents during break, promising to take additional actions to keep students safe as cases rise. He also 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.

Parents weigh in

At dismissal Monday, parents and students had mixed views on the debate over in-person or remote learning.

At Drake Elementary in Bronzeville, Shavonna Mason said she felt safe sending her five-year-old to school. The school’s safety measures, she said, make her “feel a lot [more] secure as a parent, and I’m a single parent. I still have to go to work, the world still goes on. And of course, schools are necessary, right?”

But parent Lisa Wilson was second-guessing sending her three children to class.

“They should have kept doing e-learning,” Wilson said, even though she described overseeing remote learning as really hard. She said CPS and Drake are “doing their best, but I don’t think the best is good enough.”

Drake families received COVID-19 tests from the school district to administer over winter break. CPS said it distributed 150,000 home kits before the holiday.

The results for Mason’s results came back negative, while Wilson said she never got her children’s results. She was among thousands of CPS parents who faced a frustrating outcome, with many getting an email saying the tests could not be processed “due to weather and holiday related shipping issues.”

CPS’ COVID tracker on Tuesday showed that of 35,900 completed tests, 25,000 had invalid results and 18% were positive. On Monday, CPS said it was seeking “answers” on why more than half the tests couldn’t be validated and said it was increasing on-site testing for impacted students this week. On Tuesday, Martinez called the situation very frustrating.

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

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady added that children are not the driver of the most recent COVID-19 surge. On Tuesday, she made the case that COVID-19 is acting a lot like the flu in children.

She said there were few children hospitalized due to COVID-19 between October and April last winter year and that the total hospitalized — 231 — is roughly the same number as during a regular flu season. She also noted there were no COVID deaths among children last school year. However, Arwady said there are spiking hospitalization rates among working adults due to COVID, almost exclusively among the unvaccinated. She has repeatedly stressed that vaccination is the best mitigation strategy.

Reporter Anna Savchenko contributed reporting to this story. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @annasavchenkoo.

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