CPS cancels classes Wednesday after 73% of teachers reject in-person learning

Chicago Teachers Union members voted Tuesday night to work remotely only starting Wednesday. CPS called the action illegal and a strike.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez on Tuesday said he was trying to reach a "reasonable agreement" with the union on COVID-19 mitigation measures. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez on Tuesday said he was trying to reach a "reasonable agreement" with the union on COVID-19 mitigation measures. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

CPS cancels classes Wednesday after 73% of teachers reject in-person learning

Chicago Teachers Union members voted Tuesday night to work remotely only starting Wednesday. CPS called the action illegal and a strike.

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Chicago Public Schools cancelled classes Wednesday for its more than 300,000 students after the members of the Chicago Teachers Union voted Tuesday night to defy orders to teach in-person.

The union wants teachers to be able to work remotely until Jan. 18, but the school district is calling this a “strike” and Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the union’s actions “illegal.” CPS said teachers who don’t come to work on Wednesday won’t be paid and they’ve been locked out of their CPS computer accounts. 

“Tonight, CTU leadership is compelling its membership to make a decision that will harm hundreds of thousands of Chicago families who rely upon CPS for their daily needs, for their education, for their nutrition, for their safety,” Lightfoot said Tuesday night. “That’s real harm.”

Union leaders said not allowing for virtual teaching amounts to a “lockout.” CTU President Jesse Sharkey Wednesday morning said they’ve been “failed by the mayor” and the “public health office.” 

“And teachers and the school staff have decided the only thing that we get control is is whether we can go into the buildings, and we’re saying we want to teach, and we want to do what’s right for our students, and we are prepared to do that remotely starting today,” he said during an early morning news conference. 

He said if CPS wants teachers back in schools quickly, the school district should require testing before returning to buildings, more regular testing in schools, high-quality masks for all who want and a COVID-19 metric that would trigger an individual school closing. CTU wants that metric in place for the rest of the school year. Thus far, CPS has only proposed a metric for the month of January.

Some 73% of the union’s more than 25,000 members Tuesday night voted to revert to remote learning. Under the measure, teachers and staff would stay remote until Jan. 18 or until the city no longer meets metrics for all schools to move to remote learning laid out in an agreement in place last school year — whichever comes first. That metric called for remote learning if, among other things, the positivity rate was above 15%. Currently, it is 23%.

The school buildings will remain open on Wednesday for essential services, such as meals, vaccinations and COVID-19 testing. There are no classes but CPS said staff will serve students who come. 

It’s unclear what will happen after the one-day cancellation of classes. CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said the district will communicate with parents about future plans on by the end of Wednesday. 

The mayor and school district could lock teachers and students out of virtual classrooms, dock pay and file a grievance with the state. But that would likely prolong the fight and keep students out of classes for longer, which both sides say they don’t want. The mayor referenced “Groundhog Day” several times Tuesday night in a nod to a repeat of the late nights spent last year battling over remote learning and an agreement to return to in-person classes.

If the two sides reach a safety agreement before Jan. 18, the union’s elected representatives could vote to bring teachers back sooner. 

Lightfoot on Tuesday night also issued a warning, saying the city wouldn’t stand “idly by and accept a unilateral decision [for] a work stoppage,” with a promise to share more as Wednesday unfolded. She urged teachers to come to school on Wednesday. 

Martinez said the district isn’t authorized to move the entire district to remote learning. As a result, he said the all-city remote learning days CTU is seeking wouldn’t count as instructional days by the state.

Despite the heated public rhetoric, Sharkey said the two sides are negotiating on Wednesday. He also 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 is soonest.

“We don’t want to go back to the 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 in-person instruction.”

The showdown puts Chicago Public Schools at the center of a roiling national debate over whether it is wise to continue in-person learning during record high COVID-19 cases. Many teachers don’t believe it is safe, especially when vaccinated people are contracting the virus and an increasing number of children are being hospitalized.

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

She also said that for most children, even those unvaccinated, COVID-19 is no more severe than the flu and that hospitalization rates for children are still relatively low and comparable to what’s seen during the flu season. “And we do not close schools for the flu,” she said.

Everyone, including the Chicago Teachers Union, would like to see more children vaccinated in Chicago.

Lightfoot also stressed that remote learning was difficult for a lot of students, causing high absenteeism and an increase in failure rates. She also said it was a disaster for working families.

“If we pause, what do we say to those parents who can’t afford to hire somebody to come in and watch their kids,” Lightfoot said. “What do we say to those students who are already struggling? Why on Earth, when we don’t need to pause, would we pause and risk falling back into the same old track?”

But Martinez also said he is working to resolve issues with the teachers union.

Chicago Public Schools sent a proposal to the teachers union on Tuesday morning. It included setting the metric that would shut down in-person learning at individual schools due to a COVID outbreak. The CTU has been pushing for such a metric. But 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. 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. This is for the month of January only.

Martinez also is promising better quality masks for teachers, increased contact tracing and to allow schools to use a health screener before students enter if they want.

CTU officials said the CPS proposal was the first written offer they’ve received in months. Lightfoot disputed that Tuesday night, saying CPS has offered up multiple proposals in recent months. There is disagreement about whether the school district needs to even negotiate with the union. The spring COVID-19 safety agreement ran through the end of August.

The union is trying to make the case that because there is no new safety agreement, the previous one should hold. But school district officials say this is a vastly different situation: There is no longer an emergency order from the state and vaccines are available.

Meanwhile, some parents had already decided to keep their children at home.

Parent Jennifer Torres of West Ridge on the Far Northwest Side said she didn’t feel it was safe to send her children to school.

“We’re all worried about our kids’ social and emotional health and wish that they were in school,” she said. “They do so much better in person.”

Jennifer Jones said she isn’t happy about the standoff between the union and the school district. She is frustrated they aren’t working together to address unsafe conditions at schools.

“When will the two sides be able to come together and be proponents for the students and the families?” she said.

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